For spring break this year I ventured down to New Orleans to visit friends and partake in crazy Mardi Gras festivities. I had not known a lot about the traditions or the meaning of Mardi Gras and carnival time before I arrived, but from the moment my plane landed I started to learn a lot. After speaking to my friend throughout the week and experiencing many aspects of Mardi Gras, I can surely say that it is not all rooted in the accumulation of beads. As many cities in America, New Orleans has very wealthy and very poor sections, as well as sections that reflect middle socioeconomic statuses. While driving through the city, structural racism and direct effects of slavery were clear. I would be driving down one street with beautifully regal homes and then would turn the corner onto another street that had small homes that looked run-down. There was a serious discrepancy between who lived in these houses, as well as who could afford to make repairs after Hurricane Katrina. I found out that this “patchwork” layout of the city was derived from the era of plantations in which slave owners would want their slaves to live close to them for easy access, but would not want them directly on their land. Once I learned of this urban planning technique, I saw the city very differently and realized that there are a lot more racial inequalities that stem from slavery and perpetuation of racial discrimination.
In particular, I found the parades to have very racist tendencies. To give some background, each parade is presented by a different “krewe” which is an exclusive social group within New Orleans. In addition to having exclusive events throughout the year, these krewes spend lots of money on preparing their parades for Mardi Gras. Thousands of dollars go into creating the magnificent floats and costumes and buying the beads and other assorted objects they throw off of the floats. With such high prices to participate and the resonating exclusivity, the krewes are traditionally made up of White people. Over the centuries this has been an accepted reality, but with New Orleans recognizing the importance of their diversity in recent years, new krewes and new participants in the parades have engendered. One of these krewes, the Zulu, is an all-Black krewe. However, with continued segregation and discrimination emanating throughout the entirety of the city, the parades still reflect the age-old racism of its history.
This blog post in one of my favorite scholarly blogs, “Sociological Images,” does a great job at explaining some of the history of Mardi Gras and some of the inequalities that exist therein. Check it out for some interesting analysis and excellent pictures!