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anti-racism | katrina aftermath

race and racism

Sat Sep 3rd, 2005 at 09:51:18 PDT

"We cannot allow it to be said by history that
the difference between those
who lived and those who died in the great storm
and flood of 2005 was
nothing more than poverty, age or skin color."

-- Representative
Elijah Cummings, Sept. 2nd 2005

First off, this is about race. And it's about
racism. It's also about
saving lives right now in the face of a
disastrous natural and human
catastrosphe, so I'll try to keep this short, and
remind everyone that we
need to keep pressure on.

I grew up three blocks from St. Paul Central High
School. It's a
majority-black High School just off I-94 in
Minnesota. It's my alma mater.

I didn't start out at Central. For my first
three years I went to a
private, all-boys, vastly white Catholic school.
I played basketball.

I remember, freshman year, coming back into my
own neighborhood with a team
of all-white boys, and playing at Central against
a team that was all-black
in front of a majority-black crowd. We were all
15 years old...

My team, the Cretin Raiders (yes, that's a real
name) sucked that
night. We played like crap, even though the
level of athleticism on my
team was equal to our opponents. And it was
pretty clear why. We were,
aside from me and one other teammate, scared
shitless and "off our
game." You see the other white kids, my
teammates, had never even been in
a majority-black environment before...and we were
falling prey to that
history, that bias, those fears. As my coach
later yelled in less kind
terms, we weren't even playing basketball. Race
and fear had affected our
playing, and the outcome of the game.

Four weeks later, at the Cretin gym, this tiny,
claustrophobic, old-school
gymnasium, the exact same scene reversed itself.
Central's majority-black
squad came to a gym packed with screaming white
folks...pounding on the
bleachers....and they played like shit against
us. My team won going
away. Race and fear had affected the kids from
Central too.

I think of that when I see what's played out in
New Orleans. The trucks of
white guardsmen bussing in. The slow response of
the Federal
Government. The city of New Orleans municipal
government's breakdown in
executing basic missions. The state of
Louisiana's failed response. I see
two overlapping things.

I see how race, how bias, how fears, how people's
inherent "comfort levels"
all came into play...and, truly, were a major
factor that messed up our
government's response to this disaster. And,
recalling the experience of
watching two basketball teams both play well
beneath their abilities in a
segregated environment...I can tell you...I'm
sure race and fear played a
role in the response to hurricane Katrina across
the board. There is no
doubt about that.

I mean, we have a President who won't even speak
to the NAACP, and whose
appearance yesterday, in Mississippi and Alabama,
two of the most
African-American states in the nation, consisted
of a nothing more than a
bunch of white men. I'm sure that thought didn't
even occur to them.

And that makes clear how racism...structural,
virulent, real...came to play
in New Orleans. Structural racism in America is
a one-way street, and
always has been:

First, because of racial segregation. While
racial segregation is, first
off, the reality that kept folks in the most
flood-prone parts of New
Orleans, segregation goes beyond geography; and
it's as much a part of
American life as apple pie. Segregation in
America means one thing: whites
keeping other people out...whether that's in
Piedmont or Metairie or on
Park Avenue.

Second, because of the racist structure of
poverty in this country and our
nation's thirty-five year affair with ignoring it
and accepting it. That's
the real meaning of Reaganism and "starving big
government," and we all
know it. The Reagan attack on big government
came as a response to the War
on Poverty and Civil Rights. People voted for it
along race lines, and
against their own self-interests; they still do.

Third, because of bipartisan governmental bias
and corporate
irresponsibility: from the lack of funding for
the levees right on down to
the absence of FEMA from the ground in New

Fourth, in the treatment and characterization of
the victims
themselves. Director of FEMA Mike Brown's casual
remark about the victims
"bearing some responsibility" is a statement we
all must keep in mind, and
never forget, when we look at the faces of those
mothers with children and
old folks in wheelchairs at the Superdome and the
Convention Center.

When blacks were in desperate need, large numbers
of people in our
government whose job it is to risk their lives to
try to save
them....simply did not do so. And when they
failed to do their jobs, they
blamed those victims.

That's racism. That's the consequence of power
structures that simply do
not value African-American lives as highly as
they do the comfortable
benefits that come from the existing system. And
in the case of the GOP,
those comfortable benefits include a forty year
pattern of using racial
bias to win elections. That's the truth.

We're not talking about a level of "racial
comfort" that can be solved by
George Bush, Mike Brown and Trent Lott going on
Oprah and "talking about
it." We're not talking about "race" simply
throwing us "off our game."

We are talking about a legacy of structural bias
in the way we run this
country, from both political parties...and an
abject lack of commitment
from our large corporations. (You don't think
that the big companies whose
businesses run through New Orleans don't have a
stake in the people of that
city, do you?) Further, we're talking about one
political party, the GOP,
that has built its house on the Southern Strategy
and systematically
undercut reforms, spending and any basic
government commitment directed at
improving the lives of the poor and racial
minorities. That bias is not a
two-way street. It's called racism.

All of us in the cities know this. We see it
every day. And we know that
the real reason that we saw the scenes we did in
New Orleans days after the
natural disaster....the real reason that the
United States of America has
looked like a "third world country" for all the
world to see...is
structural, persistent racism in the conduct of
our government and deep in
the fabric of our society.

When the President's vision meant to inspire this
country, his vision of
hope, was of someday sittin' on the porch in
Mississippi with Trent
Lott....a vision he entertained while thousands
of our citizens were still
abandoned and fighting for their lives in New
Orleans, I have but one thing
to say:

If folks don't realize that this is about race
and racism, then it's time
for this country to wake up.

Keep pressure on to save lives.