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                                       politics + culture

Saturday, September 03, 2005

race and racism

First off, this is about race. And it's about racism. It's also about saving people right now, so I'll keep this short.

I grew up three blocks from St. Paul Central High School. It's a majority black High School just off I-94. 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 they were falling prey to their own history, their bias, their 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 Governement. 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. Just like I watched two basketball teams both play well beneath their abilities...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.

But it is also clear how racism...structural, virulent, real...came to play in New Orleans. And structural racism in America is a one-way street:

  • First, because of racial segregation. While racial segregation is the reality that kept folks in the most flood-prone parts of New Orleans, segregation goes beyond geography; 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 Park Avenue.
  • Second, because of the racist structure of poverty in this country and this 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; 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 Orleans.
  • Fourth, in the treatment and characterization of the victims themselves. Mike Brown's casual remark about the victims "bearing some responsibility" is a statement we all must keep in mind 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, 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 and Mike Brown 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. It's time for this country to wake up.

    In the meantime, let's keep pressure on to save lives.

    {Permalink.}

  • 7 Comments:

    • I was talking to a friend yesterday, and thinking about a question that we've all heard asked the last couple of days: could you imagine this same federal response if 50,000 predmoninantly white citizens or 100,000 predominantly white citizens were trapped in a city in these hellish conditions? Where a major American city was turned into a hellish zone of death, full of panic, corpses, floods, fires, and tens of thousands of Americans abadoned there for days, packed together, collapsing, dying, ailing, suffering from lack of food and water, filth and excrement, overcrowding, heat, and desperation.

      The answer is: no. It's unimaginable. But the reason it's unimaginable is twofold. Go to nearly *any* city in the U.S. and you see the same thing over and over: de facto segregation with a poor, black, or black-and-Latino, section. "Ghettos." "Slums." Parts of *every* city that are not in the guide book. Housing projects. High crime areas. Abandoned parts of the city. Neighborhoods where the road suddenly, simply in crossing the street, gets a lot worse. Or where stores suddenly disappear. Or abandoned buildings proliferate.

      I grew up on 97th in New York City. The redlines were clear. Places half a mile from my house where I would walk comfortably at night; places where I would almost never go. Every city I've lived in in the U.S. has followed this same pattern: stark, visible, brutal redlines of segregation -- known to everyone but almost never addressed in political terms anymore.

      New Haven. Chapel Street and Dwight Street. Hyde Park in Chicago. Baltimore. Washington DC. Pittsburgh. Atlanta. Even in wealthy Palo Alto, where I live now, beneficiary of one of the great economic booms probably in all of human history: East Palo Alto, EPA, almost untouched by the internet bubble, where the road cracks right at the township border, and where white people mostly only drive through.

      The New Orleans catastrophe is a catastrophe born out of this, and, as your post points out, born out of the calculated political strategy that demonized and villified the Warren Court's and the Civil Rights movement's heroic efforts to combat, not just Jim Crow, but *urban segregation*. "A forty-year pattern of using racial bias to win elections." The destruction of New Orleans -- and the mass murder of this week -- are born out of the Southern Strategy; Richard Nixon; "welfare queens;" "Willie Horton;" the despicable confederate flag demagoguery of the last 10 years; Strom Thurmand and Trent Lott; William Rehnquist, who cut his teeth disenfranchising black voters in Arizona; "Bush vs. Gore," which -- sickly manipulating the Warren Court prinicple of equal voting rights -- disenfranchised black voters in Florida; Karl Rove; Lee Atwater; Roy Blount; Tom Delay; George W. Bush -- and Justice John Roberts, who flakked for the Reagan administration on all of these issues.

      "Don't politicize this." "Don't finger-point." Ha.

      By Blogger awol, at 9:16 AM  

    • Race and fear had affected the kids from Central too.

      That is truly sad. This is 2005. This should not be an issue any longer. And it completely floors me that this is STILL an issue. That people just cannot get beyond the color of a person's skin. As if it really matters.

      Right now there are children suffering out there. I don't care if their parents are rich or not, black or white or any other color, all I know is that children are suffering and something needs to be done. And now! This cannot continue.

      Have you seen them? They are crying. :(

      By Blogger Angie, at 9:34 AM  

    • I really appreciate this. I know that combating racism is a process of constantly raising your awareness and I just had an "a-ha" moment while reading this.

      I work for a non-profit organization with at-risk kids in St. Paul. In several arenas, there are underground battles with suburban schools, governments and other non-profit organizations due to their fear that too much money and resources will be "swallowed up" by the inner cities and they (suburbs) won't get their "fair share." It has bothered me for a long time - but I see it in a whole new context now.

      By Blogger NLinStPaul, at 9:59 AM  

    • Sadly, ko, you're right.

      It's the same phenomenon that leads tabloids and so-called "TV news" networks to obsess over a missing young white woman to the exclusion of everything else.

      The ugly truth is that the powers-that-be do not value the lives of non-white Americans in the same way that they value the lives of pretty young white people. And we all let them do it without challenging them nearly enough.

      We should all be ashamed of ourselves. This is one of our ugliest hours.

      By Anonymous socal, at 10:20 AM  

    • Who lives in Oakland. The descendents of slavery who during the Joined the Second Great Migration of African-Americans who headed west. These are the founders of the Black city we know as Oakland. All of their history in is Mississipppi, Alabama and Louisiana. I moved from Oakland to Toronto two years ago and am interested to watch the response in Oakland, amongst the children and grandchildren of those original migrants.

      By Anonymous Cdn Looking South, at 10:48 AM  

    • Politicize this? Damn straight. We owe it to the dead and grieving to turn around the increasingly right-tilting juggernaut that has become the Democratic Party. Institutional racism, structural racism, southern strategy. The Democratic Party, the only viable party we've got, needs to distance itself from this, show a clear alternative to Republican policy, and reject any Democratic office holder who does not RECOMMIT to Civil Rights and the social and economic policies that Civil Rights entails. We have a responsibility to all those who died unnecessarily in New Orleans to make sure that such a disaster happens NEVER AGAIN. NOW IS THE TIME!

      By Blogger Myshkin, at 11:25 AM  

    • This post is excellent - thoughtful, analytic and dead right! The sad thing is that the national democratic political leadership (other than the Black Caucus), apparently in deference to the right wing haters whom the republicans have corralled into a loyal base, have nothing, NOTHING to say about this horror. They are totally convinced that aligning themselves with African American survival or even our basic civil rights is not good for their political images. Damn them to hell!

      By Blogger Aint Supposed to Die A Natural Death, at 3:03 PM  

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