Mitch Landrieu will admit he’s far from the first to set his mind to conquering the seemingly intractable problem of race in America.
But in a country where everything— politics, economics, even everyday interactions — are suffused with the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, perhaps there’s a place for a white southern Democrat to play a role.
Landrieu will formally launch the E Pluribus Unum initiative on Friday, an effort with influential backers including former President Bill Clinton that seeks to reshape the country’s conversation about race. The goal, he says, is to more effectively reach out and help people gain a better understanding of racism in modern America.
The message is geared mainly toward the white community.
“I’m not spending a whole lot of time trying to talk to African-American audiences. There’s not much I can offer there. There’s other groups who are more competent than I am to do that,” Landrieu said. “But I have been purposeful and intentional in speaking truth, and hopefully love, to white audiences.”
The former New Orleans mayor, who was unable to run for re-election last year due to term limits, has spent his time since leaving office in May 2018 conducting a national tour to study how divisions of race and class play out in urban communities in the South, more than a half century after Jim Crow-era segregation was banned.
A report of his findings, out Friday, lays out in stark terms what many people of color in those communities have long said — that systemic and individual racism have become more implicit since segregation’s heyday but remain devastating to those they impact.
The report also serves as the launchpad for Landrieu’s nonprofit, E Pluribus Unum, which will focus on changing the narrative about racism and discrimination in America.
Touted by Landrieu as “one of the most extensive and significant qualitative-research projects on race in the South to date,” the organization’s year-long initiative was financed by Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, and the social change organization Jobs’ Emerson Collective.
The group has not yet disclosed how much money it has raised so far.
Landrieu has managed to assemble a high-profile advisory council, including Clinton, Jobs, Harvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., United Negro College Fund CEO Michael L. Lomax, Ford Foundation President Darren Walker and former Democratic National Committee Chair and political consultant Donna Brazile. Marc Morial, another former New Orleans mayor who now serves as CEO of the National Urban League, will also sit on the council.
The group, which takes its name from the slogan that means “Out of many, one,” now plans to move into a more active role. That will include educational programs and efforts to re-frame discussions of race in the media, arts, culture and sports, areas that Landrieu said the study found were unifying factors across racial lines.
E Pluribus Unum, which will have between eight to 10 employees when it staffs up its offices in New Orleans and Washington, D.C., will also run a leadership institute and examine and recommend policies for governments looking to heal racial divides, he said.
At the outset, the group has no specific policies it is advocating for, though criminal justice reform and reparations both came up as Landrieu on Thursday discussed possible topics it will address.
The former mayor has been riding a wave of national attention since his controversial decision to remove four Jim Crow-era monuments in his final term. A speech Landrieu gave as the final monument, that of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, was wrested from its perch at the eponymous Lee Circle, drew national acclaim. Soon after, his name began to be circulated among a slew of possible Democratic candidates for president.
That momentum never materialized into a campaign. However, Landrieu has remained in the public eye as he has laid the groundwork for the E Pluribus Unum Fund, most prominently as a CNN commentator and through tours to promote his book “In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History.”
Speculation has, of course, continued to circulate about Landrieu’s potential political future, particularly given his advocacy for former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign for the Democratic nomination. Landrieu was careful to say on Thursday that support is not a formal endorsement.
With years of work ahead to make a go of his new foundation, Landrieu brushed away suggestions that he might be seeking a position in the administration of any of the presidential contenders, using similar language to the incalculable times he was asked whether he had aspirations for the Oval Office.
“I don’t have any expectations of being in the next president’s cabinet,” he said.
The report chronicles Landrieu and his team’s discussions with residents and political leaders in 28 communities across 13 Southern states.