This post originally appeared in 2011. Revised and re-posted in honor of Mardi Gras.
If you attend a Mardi Gras parade this year, you’ll likely notice that the float riders will be all-White or all-Black and all-female or all-male. In fact, the majority of krewes — clubs that sponsor parades and other festivities — are race- and gender-segregated. This is not de facto, but according to official krewe policy. And it remains legal to discrimate along these lines. How did this happen?
According to Kevin Fox Gotham‘s book, Authentic New Orleans, Mardi Gras was transformed from an unorganized local festival to a rationalized tourist attraction by white elites. The first organized parade occurred in 1857 and was organized by the Mystick Krewe of Comus, several dozen social elites. This krewe, like many that followed, was race, gender, and class specific. Only white males who could afford membership in the krewe (essentially a social club) could participate.
White only parades were part of a strategy to make New Orleans a tourist destination for white travelers. Unlike today, when New Orleans capitalizes on its multicultural heritage, for a very long time New Orleans tried to suppress popular knowledge of its non-white population, disinvested in that population, and drove them out of touristy areas.
It was not until 1991 that the City Council proposed banning racial segregation of the krewes and the Council voted unanimously to make bias illegal. Krewes that refused to integrate (in principle, if not in reality) would be denied “city services and parade permits, and would require jail time and fines” (p. 182). Mayor Sidney Barthelemy said:
We close off streets. We deny the taxpayer the right to drive down the street to give a segregated club the opportunity to parade. Now that’s unbelievable in 1991.
The decision brought simmering racial tension to a boil. Two krewes, the Krewe of Comus and the Knights of Momus, cancelled their parades in 1992 rather than comply with the new law. Another, the Krewe of Proteus, canceled the following year. An African American krewe, the Krewe of Zulu, mocked the decisions of the all-white krewes in 1992.
Ultimately the anti-bias law came under fire from all-female krewes such as Krewes of Isis. Wanting to preserve their exclusive membership, Iris and Venus “opposed any discrimination ordinance because they recognized that it would undermine their power to exclude men” (p. 185).
In the end:
…the City Council voted to remove the jail sentence provisions in the ordinance and shifted the burden of proof onto individuals who maintained that they had been discriminated against if they attempted to join a krewe (p. 185).
But even this did not hold. Courts decided that the anti-bias laws violated laws of free association and, when the case came before the Supreme Court, they declined to revisit it. So, race and gender segregation of krewes remains legal.
Today, krewes segregated by race and gender still persist (and people without means are excluded from krewes generally, as they are very expensive), though newly formed krewes are often integrated on both axes, including Harry Connick Jr.’s Krewe of Orpheus.Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
Kat — March 8, 2011
Krewes in Mobile, Alabama are still racially segregated. The documentary "The Order of Myths" is about that:
Kat — March 8, 2011
Also: The link to the book doesn't work and the picture of the Krewe of Iris is missing.
justducky — March 8, 2011
Most orders are seperated in one way or another from race gender rich/poor interests. They as a group have the right to refuse membership! O well it is their right! Make a group for yourself that is why there are so many! Nice quick history!
Marc — March 8, 2011
It is frequently inconvenient, but ultimately very important that the US Constitution protects the right of people to be A-holes. What I'd like to see is the city council allow anyone to have their racist clique, and then to have the population at large give them so much shit that they close up shop.
Casey — March 8, 2011
As a resident, I want to point out that the attendees of nearly every major parade are often almost entirely white (and tourists). It's not until the last few parades (zulu especially) do the crowds begin to look a little more black. Black neighbor here likes to tell story about how when she was a little girl, parades wouldn't throw any beads to black people, though her parents would go out and buy beads and tell her they caught them.
Stuff like that.
Heather Leila — March 9, 2011
I wrote about this last year, that there are specific gender and race roles in the parades:
And that during this time, people get a lot more passes than maybe they should.
Xavier — November 7, 2011
let our people be kings of white krewes, sush as super krewes and old line krewes.why black captins don't look like the white ones.
Tusconian — February 10, 2013
I am very curious as to how many all-female krewes opposing the anti-discrimination laws actually include black women (and for that matter, any woman who isn't white and Christian, but black is a particular concern). Whether it's admitted or not, many groups that are, on the surface, for the benefit of women have the implied subtext of "for white, middle to upper class women who aren't immigrants, Jewish, or otherwise involved in any other culture that might threaten an absolutist view of what ideas and actions will benefit women as a whole." It does not seem to be particularly out of the question that the same women who want to preserve tradition for women are also muttering under their breaths that they also don't have to even entertain the idea of having to be associated with black people.
Especially since, I'll strongly disagree with this: "Unlike today, when New Orleans capitalizes on its multicultural
heritage, for a very long time New Orleans tried to suppress popular
knowledge of its non-white population, disinvested in that population,
and drove them out of touristy areas." New Orleans is still a highly segregated, highly racist city. I know many black people (both originally from LA and from elsewhere) who refuse to go to New Orleans outside of Mardi Gras and visiting immediate family because of it, and still more who avoid it entirely. There is still a pretty strong presence of racism and exclusion at Mardi Gras, especially when the sun sets. While New Orleans capitalizes on multiculturalism to boost tourism, very much of that is still directed at white folks from out of town. Capitalizing on multiculturalism for the tourists is far from mutually exclusive with racism, segregation, and exploitation of minority groups. In fact, tourism from people who are likely to be white, relatively wealthy (compared to those minority groups), and have a preconceived notion of what a location is like "authentically" can very well encourage those types of things. Just because it isn't legal to stand up and say it, doesn't mean it doesn't happen. If all the tourists come down to Neighborhood A, you can bet everyone does their best to keep the "scary" minorities in Neighborhood C. If all the nightclubs in that area are catering to tourists, I suspect that those nightclubs are much more strict with people following the dress code than the club a mile down the street, particularly nonwhite men. And you can bet that no matter who makes up the bulk of the low-paid labor force in the city, nightclubs catering to young white tourists are going to hire nearly exclusively young white people with a certain "image."
Ricmat — February 11, 2013
How can you comment on something you know nothing about?
Stir it up!
You obviously have never been to a parade in New Orleans.
Since the late 1980's, Mardi Gras Krewes where mandated integrate. While the Krewes are private clubs, they utilize public resources to parade, ie. police, clean up, street closure, etc.
While some of the old line Krewes chose to never parade again, most have opened membership to those of other races.
DataGeekB — February 12, 2013
In Pensacola I saw both sides of the segregated spectrum... Krewes of all-white-women, a krewe of higher-income whites dressed in faux native attire, AND several krewes of mixed sex and race. Also, parade watchers were of all ages, races, shapes, sizes, and statuses. In that, at least, there is some progress.