NEW ORLEANS — Mardi Gras celebrations are under way here amid a search for racial healing.
Although the annual event includes private parties, dances and costume balls organized by many different racial, ethnic and even economic groups, the heart of Mardi Gras has always been its colorful parades. Those parades traditionally are hosted by several carnival clubs--or krewes--with names like Proteus, Momus and Comus, among others.
Most of these clubs are exclusively white. Historians here have long noted the curious relationship between the clubs, the carnival and a city whose population is more than 60% black.
Last year, the city decided to do something about it. Taking aim at the aging carnival aristocracy, the City Council in December unanimously passed an ordinance calling for jail sentences and fines for any carnival club officials found guilty of discrimination.
The uproar was immediate.
Opponents called the ordinance "racially divisive" and a "disaster for the city." Polls were taken that showed that blacks and whites alike were opposed to the new ordinance.
Perhaps more important, three of the most established carnival clubs--Proteus, Momus and Comus--threatened to withdraw from the parades. That sent shock waves through the community. Many local carnival fans wondered not only which krewe would be next to cancel, but whether or not Mardi Gras could still be Mardi Gras.
The result: Earlier this month the City Council, which has a black majority, voted 6 to 1 in favor of softening the anti-discrimination ordinance. The new vote removed the jail sentences and shifted the burden of proof on charges of bias from the krewes to those who accuse the krewes of discrimination.
Unhappiness lingers, but in the end, only Momus and Comus decided to stay out of this year's celebrations.
"I think what we've really found out with this controversy is how sacred Mardi Gras is to the people of New Orleans of both races," said Silas Lee, a professor of sociology at the predominantly black Xavier University. "Mardi Gras has been elevated to sainthood here. It's something people don't want to mess with, even if they think that some of the carnival clubs may be violating U.S. civil rights laws."
Said Arthur Hardy, a Mardi Gras historian: "Mardi Gras, every year, is the one time that everyone gets together. Whites have their clubs, and blacks have their clubs too. But when it comes to just enjoying the parades and the general party spirit, both blacks and whites during Mardi Gras party and play together on the streets."
Other opponents of the anti-discrimination ordinance said it may simply have been a matter of ill-timing, coming just weeks after the tumultuous election defeat of David Duke in the state's gubernatorial race. "This has been the last thing we've needed here at this time," said Councilwoman Peggy Wilson, who reluctantly voted for the ordinance in December but then led the move to emasculate it. "We should be healing now, not continuing to divide."
But Councilwoman Dorothy Mae Taylor, original sponsor of the anti-bias ordinance, lamented the reversal.
"I think, in my heart, it is unfair and unjust to play favoritism to some class or category of people," she said. "We are still talking about discrimination, pure and simple."
Yet Xavier's Lee said the unpopularity of the legislation could also prove the limits of racial divisions: "I think there are a lot of very serious issues upon which whites and blacks in New Orleans would legitimately disagree. But when it comes to a big party that everyone enjoys, both races were in instant agreement--'leave it alone,' they said. If this was a battle between tradition and political correctness, tradition won."