For Pearl Grossman, Mardi Gras in New Orleans is the time of year when she and her family usually leave town to vacation someplace else.
"You'll find many people in the Jewish community here who leave during carnival season," said Grossman, who is a secretary with the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans. Because, historically, many of the largest Mardi Gras clubs--or krewes--have not allowed Jews, blacks, Italians or women into their clubs, Grossman said, "a lot of people have just felt that it is better to not be here at all."
But now Grossman and thousands of other Mardi Gras "outsiders," are taking a "wait-and-see" approach to the annual pre-Lenten celebration in the wake of a unanimous vote by the New Orleans City Council last month that officially outlaws discrimination by any Mardi Gras club or krewe on the basis of race, national origin, sex, disability or sexual orientation.
The ordinance, which was proposed and vigorously lobbied for by council member Dorothy Mae Taylor, aims to abolish New Orleans' aging carnival aristocracy, giving it until 1993 to allow non-white, non-Protestant and non-male applicants into the krewes or risk losing city permits.
"These organizations for a number of years have absolutely discriminated on the basis of race, sex, religion, and ethnicity," said William Quigley, a professor of law at New Orleans' Loyola University. " . . . This is not just games, this is culture, this is also business; people in these organizations, in order to make sure that their daughters, their granddaughters, their grandsons and others have an opportunity to participate, will refer business, and try to get family members, acquaintances and business people to refer business to the krewe captains and lieutenants, the people who make decisions in the krewes."
Although outsiders tend to group the carnival clubs and parades into one happy, city-wide extravaganza, longtime New Orleans people are well aware of the class, status and station that membership in certain Mardi Gras clubs can symbolize. To belong to such clubs as Momus, Rex, Proteus or Comus, among others, usually also means that you are a white native of New Orleans with promising social connections and a family name of great prestige and respect in Uptown New Orleans.
Officials with some of the oldest carnival krewes in the city argued before the City Council that the proposed law would violate their rights: "The essential character of any voluntary organization is the privilege of its members to choose those with whom they will associate," said Harry McCall, who has served as a member of several of the old-line clubs. "It is implicit in any organization that new members will be congenial with existing members. The proposed ordinance is designed to take away from members this basic right."
John Charbonnet, a member of Rex, perhaps the most prestigious of all Mardi Gras krewes, said enforcing such a law could provoke some of the carnival clubs into moving their parades out of the city, or not parading at all. Noting that Mardi Gras brings an estimated $27 million into New Orleans, Charbonnet remarked: "This law could very easily kill Mardi Gras in New Orleans."
Observed council member Taylor: " . . . Just because (discrimination) has been going on for so long, doesn't mean it's right."
Others in the daylong council debate were more direct:
"It just seems incredible to me that people can come into this council room and argue for the right not only to continue their discrimination, but also argue for the right to insist that the public subsidize them in that attempt," said attorney James Gray, who noted that city police and street maintenance workers are needed to guide the carnival floats through the city.
Members of the council who had earlier expressed opposition to the law ultimately voted in favor of it, particularly after Taylor agreed to let a series of committees review the punitive aspects of her bill. Opponents were also won over by a compromise agreement to suspend for 11 months the actual implementation of the law, giving the krewes time to open up their membership procedures.
Hanging over all of the acrimonious debate was the fresh memory of Louisiana's recent governor's election, which saw the overwhelming defeat of former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke and an unprecedented coalition of black liberal activists and white conservative businessmen in opposition to what was perceived as Duke's racist overtures.
After the council vote, Taylor remarked: "We all did the right thing today. Now we have to move on."