outside the lines

14 09 2008

Still an avid reader of The Nation, I was interested this recent article by Lizzie Ratner about apparently abundant and rampant racism in New Orleans, particularly in terms of housing laws in a post-Katrina society. It’s a good article; it’s poignantly punctuated with horror stories from real residents from outer New Orleanian parishes and antediluvian-seeming statistics about low income housing opportunities (or lack thereof) for citizens here. I think what I was most struck by was this snapshot of one couple’s housewarming in Jefferson Parish:

[Incidents of racism] continue in vigilante acts of intimidation like the one visited on Travis and Kiyanna Smith, a young African-American couple who moved into the area in May and were treated to a crude welcome: three crosses and the letters KKK burned into their lawn.

I do think it’s worth noting, however, that this article is not really about New Orleans. It’s more about the outlying parishes in the Greater New Orleans area. Not that this makes the issue any less important, of course, but it’s a necessary distinction. In the several months I’ve lived here I’ve been struck by two things regarding parishes like Jefferson and St. Bernard (two of the main parishes discussed in this article). First, tourists and “outsiders” don’t realize that the social and physical damage from Katrina extended well beyond the Lower Ninth Ward; and second, that these largely ignored parishes are truly suffering.

My housemates both teach in Jefferson Parish. One works at a mostly-white school, and she tells me stories about racist comments in her classroom that I have a really difficult time believing (and which I feel uncomfortable repeating so as to respect her privacy). But perhaps I should be less shocked: After all, the parish only just desegregated its schools this year.

Yes, the housing laws are at the very least classist. And the parishes on the outskirts of New Orleans, like so many small towns in the deep south, are undeniably racist. But I don’t think this is because of the aftermath of a hurricane. I think it runs deeper.

What we fail to recognize too often is how complicated 21st Century racism is. Most of today’s big law-makers and policy-enforcers weren’t alive to experience Jim Crow America. Racism isn’t taught to us the way it used to be: it’s much more subtle. The problem is mostly hereditary — the rich stay rich and the poor stay poor, and institutionalized systems reinforce these patterns. We could talk about criminal justice, or about housing, or about education (I don’t want to get into how many of my 20-year-old students will not vote in the upcoming election — or any election, for that matter — because they cannot read the complicated language on ballots), but that’s the basic gist of it. It’s about money and power these days, plain and simple.

So when an incident like Jena 6 happens, we can call it “The Civil Rights battle of our time,” but that’s not really true. The Civil Rights battle of our time is far less extraordinary, far less obvious than that. It’s not black and white.

Why do white people hate black people in the parishes on the outskirts of New Orleans?

Well, a few reasons, I think. For one thing, the media acts like the only people who commit crimes are black people. A day doesn’t go by when I don’t read a story in the Times Picayune about a black kid standing trial for homicide or gang activity. And if you take the Claiborne Exit on I-10 driving into New Orleans, the first thing you’ll see is an enormous billboard with 5 black faces and a tacky announcement proclaiming that these men are dangerous criminals wanted for murder, and if you see them you should call this number. On top of that, the law teaches us that crack is tremendously worse than cocaine; that robbing a liquor store is a greater offense than stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from the inside as a CEO; and that enough money can get you out of jail no matter WHAT you’ve done. There is also a disconnect along color lines in extremely poor communities (like some of the places mentioned in the articles) out of sheer competition for limited land, food, and money. That’s when issues like affirmative action become canon fodder for whites in low socio-economic situations, and the Ronald Reagans and Jesse Helmses of the world rally Republican voters around the Fundamentalist-fueled conservatism we on The Left love to hate.

Of course, the sad reality is that there are still thousands of American families who continue to teach their children to hate Difference. I don’t know what to say about that besides the insultingly obvious.

The short version is this: Yes, racism is rampant. Yes, Katrina cast a huge spotlight on that reality in New Orleans. But there is so much beneath the surface here. When it comes to race, I find myself confronted with more questions than I could possibly hope to answer. All we can do is fight for our fellow human beings, no matter what. Sadly, as articles like this crushingly articulate, we are not currently doing that.




One response

20 09 2008

one of my professors at oxy just wrote an article for the nation last week about student movements for obama. his name is peter dreier. look him up!

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