Let’s talk about race.
It’s just us white folks, of course. ‘Cause this is a white folks’ site; built by a white girl for her people.
That’s not the description that you’d apply, of course. You being white. But imagine if this site were run by a black woman. Well, that’d be different wouldn’t it? You might take it a bit less seriously. You might think about this site as a way to get a black girl’s perspective, not necessarily the broader thoughts and comments of someone who is interested in politics and culture.
Now don’t fib. You might. You might not. But I’m betting you would. You – we white folks – would characterize the work here differently because of what we know and assume about the person doing that work.
And that, my friends, is just the beginning of the problem we’re having with the images and sights we’re seeing from New Orleans. I was reminded last night – watching the half-hour of footage of frustrated, unhappy, desperately frightened people gathered at the New Orleans Convention Center and Superdome – of the rueful remark a local San Franciscan made to me a few years ago. We were talking about the urban “renewal” of the Fillmore and a neighborhood known as the Western Addition, a once thriving black community in the north central part of town.
“Anytime white poeple see a bunch of black folks living together, they assume it’s a slum and try to figure out a way to tear it down,” he said. Now, San Francisco is the site of the one the epic legal battles over urban renewal in the mid-1960s. The city’s black community banded together and stopped some – but not all – of what was planned. The result? A displacement of an entire community. The reward? Justin Herman, the architect of all that “renewal” has a landmark plaza in the city named for him and, one assumes, his good work.
Now, I’m not going to debate the merits of government-sponsored urban renewal. That’s not the point of this post although certainly those efforts – or the lack of them – have a role to play in what’s going on today in New Orleans.
The point of this post is to remind us white folks that the ways in which we look at black America is very different from how black Americans see themselves. Justin Herman displaced middle class black folks. He did not tear down a slum. The people that I saw on TV last night are not looters and ghetto-boys; they’re the people who drive the taxis and trucks in New Orleans, who hang its power and phone lines, who deliver its mail and nurse its sick. They are not its maids and trash haulers – not exclusively – they are the people who keep the city’s service economy running. They are New Orleans’ working middle class – the people who do the physical work that keeps that tourist town going – and they are mostly black because New Orleans is a city of black folks.
That may sound obvious. But I’m betting it doesn’t look obvious. And we – we white folks – know it. In the TV coverage from New Orleans, TV reporters and announcers are taking great pains to say, over and over, that the folks – the black folks – they are talking to are well-behaved. That they aren’t violent. That they are and were obeying the law. That they are and were waiting patiently. Translation: They are behaving just like us white folks.
Why did they keep making this point? Because they knew that many people watching TV had seen pictures of young men looting and breaking glass and with those images, they did exactly what the San Francisco pol said they’d do. They thought: “See. Those people. No respect.”
And we white folks know that’s the polite version of that thought, don’t we?
Of course, a bunch of white folks locked up in the Superdome without food and water in 90 degree heat would be just as angry. And a lot less well-behaved, I’ll bet. We all know – and us white folks should acknowlege – that a bunch of our people wouldn’t be left to their own devices in a convention center in the middle of a hurricane, don’t we? And if they were, they’d be called outraged tax-payers. And some lawyer would be talking for all of us by now.
The sad truth is that the people still in New Orleans didn’t have the resources to leave. Not because they are destitute or uneducated or stupid or lazy or slothful. It’s because they didn’t have the help they needed to get out of town. In fleeing Katrina, it was every man for himself and in those situations, the wealthy go first and go further.
The New Orleans diaspora – of a black community spread now to Houston and later to points north and west – is going to be a long and hard journey for many of these people. It will take a generation, just as it did the Joads, for many to recoup — financially, economically and psychologically — what they have lost this week. It is as important a physical relocation as the mass migration out of the dustbowl that was Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska in the 1930s. The social consequences will be enormous.
It is far too much to hope that New Orleans will teach us anything about race relations – not in our current political climate with its gaping vacuum of leadership on both sides — but it should.