People Get Ready

[ make levees, not war ]

Let’s talk about the racial thing

Posted by schroeder915 on January 16, 2006

I’ve been taking stabs at this post for a while now. It remains inconclusive, filled more with questions than answers. Serendipitously, it’s now the Martin Luther King holiday, and there’s no better time to cast it out to sea and brace myself for the coming storm.

As decisions are made about how to rebuild New Orleans, we need to have a discussion about race — but we aren’t the only ones who need to be talking about race. The entire country needs to cut through the crap and get down to brass tacks on the issues of race, inequality, and injustice. The question I pose is, can New Orleans rebuild at all without tackling the issue of race?

There are certainly many more ways than I would like to admit that the word “racism” accurately describes the character of relations between blacks and whites, and between people of other racial, ethnic, and religious heritages, but I’d like to suggest that we try to do away with the word and instead talk about the factors that are manifested in the behavior we so readily call racism.

I’m not just talking about the way whites treat blacks, but the way in which blacks treat whites. I’m talking about white-trash rednecks who liberally sprinkle the word “nigger” in their conversation, as much as I am the black punks who treat me like I wronged them before they even know who the hell I am.

Last week, a woman I work with and I had a conversation in the break room. I’ll say her name was Janet. Somehow we got into a discussion about where I live and how my house made out through the hurricane, which led to a conversation about our shared frustration with how slowly people are returning, and alternately how we are concerned about what kind of people will be returning. I explained that I felt really safe in the city since Hurricane Katrina — safer, in fact, than I’ve ever felt in New Orleans — but I said that since people started returning to New Orleans, I was becoming concerned about the increase of nuisance type crimes in my neighborhood.

Recently, the back window was smashed out of a neighbor’s Cherokee, and on the same night, a house window across the street was broken. Then, last week, at about 5:00 in the morning, I was awaken by an insistent knocking on the door. The man (a nicely-dressed and well-spoken black man) sounded extremely scared, saying that someone was following him. He pleaded with me to call 911 to send a patrol right away. Of course I did. In the meantime, the guy kept knocking on the door — very loudly (perhaps with a heavy ring), and insisting that someone was following him. I had to ask, of course, why no one ever caught up with him if he was being followed, or why he didn’t try to find a place to hide on the side of the house instead of standing on my porch under a bright light. He said he could hear them coming, like they were in the bushes or something. Well, that did it for me — the guy was high on something. Sure enough, after a patrol showed up another twenty or so minutes or so later (glad that wasn’t me out there — it certainly raises the question of whether there really are enough patrols), the officers agreed that he was tripping.

I explained to Janet that I thought the windows were broken by college kids walking home after being at the bar down the street. I’ve had more problems in my neighborhood with college kids than anyone else, but I’ve also had a fair share of problems with a drug dealer across the street (a white guy, gone long before Katrina) and the traffic of not-nice people he brought into the neighborhood (black and white).

I don’t feel quite as safe as I used to since Hurricane Katrina driving through certain neighborhoods that are being repopulated because of the re-appearance of badass-looking, baggy-pants gangsta posers, with their gangsta cars, and the loud thud-thud of speakers that I’m sure are so loud their owners must have to reinforce their car’s side panels, and they’ll surely be deaf in a few years. I’m also seeing homeless vagrants hanging out under overpasses and in parks again.

Janet is not very well educated. Naturally, she thought that people in college would behave better — or she expected that they should. I said that most do, but I also expressed my belief that a lot of college kids (not all) who attend Tulane and Loyola don’t have the same kind of responsibility that I had when I worked my way through college. I could go out to bars on occasion, but I always had to do it on a tight budget. Although it doesn’t have to cost much to get drunk, but that was never my goal. I never understood why anyone would want to get so shitfaced that they couldn’t control themselves. Furthermore, I couldn’t afford not to stay on top of things financially, physically, or mentally.

Janet griped that kids these days are all so bad. When I said there are a lot of good kids too, she agreed, but she then revealed her disdain for the gangsta mentality — the baggy pants falling off the hips, the bad attitude, and the tatoos all over the place. She said she knew a girl who got tatoos on her hands that said something nasty (I don’t recall what), and told the girl she shouldn’t have done it because she’d have a hard time finding a job.

I asked Janet where she lived. She said she lived in Harvey. That was my cue to ask what she thought about Gretna police chief Arthur Lawson ordering his officers to block the passage of people walking from New Orleans to the West Bank after Hurricane Katrina. I was surprised to hear Janet say she was very enthusiastically in support of Lawson’s decision. She said she didn’t want any of those people in her neighborhood, and she thought Lawson was right to keep them out.

I say I was surprised to hear Janet say she supported Lawson’s decision — because Janet is a black woman.

That was our point of entry into a very frank discussion about race. I was tactful, but very direct in asking Janet to elaborate on her view of Lawson. I said that a lot of people considered him and his officers to be racist — that they didn’t want all of those black people from New Orleans coming into their neighborhoods. Janet said she didn’t think that’s why they did it. She added that she still doesn’t want those people from New Orleans in her neighborhood, adding that she was opposed to a recent plan to put a trailer park near her home because she thought it would bring crime into her neighborhood.

Of course, this was a very interesting viewpoint for a black person to have — certainly not one that has been brought up anywhere in the press. We’ve only heard about how that group of weary, desperate, predominantly black people were prevented from crossing the bridge with gunshots fired over their heads by that racist Lawson. We’ve also heard about how the NIMBY people who don’t want trailer parks in their neighborhoods are racists.

I expressed to Janet my praise for one of the few good things Governor Blanco has done since the hurricane by forcing Mayor Nagin and the city council to stop their fighting; to decide where to put trailers so that FEMA wouldn’t be able to put the blame for the slow pace of trailer delivery on the city. In her promise to provide Louisiana State Troopers for security in trailer parks, Blanco eliminated one of the major residents’ concerns about trailer parks, any further any protest about crime being a concern might more plainly be exposed as racism. For weeks, Nagin and the city council continued bickering instead of addressing problems with solutions. Blanco crafted a vision that eliminated a major impediment to proceeding with getting people back into the city.

Janet agreed that if she could be assured that any trailer park placed in the vicinity of her neighborhood were secure, she wouldn’t have any objection. I discovered that Janet had the same prejudices as did I about people who look and act like gangstas. Are all people with baggy pants to be feared. Perhaps not, but Janet and I have learned from experience to fear them.

I don’t know where Janet acquired that fear, but I can guess. A lot of the gangsta thing is about intimidating other people, and may result in worse. I have first-hand experience with both the intimidation, and the worse. That fear is difficult to surrender.

I tried to tell Janet that we, as a society, have to work on problems with troubled youth. She said she didn’t see the same degree of problems with white youth as with black youth. I tried to say that there’s a lot of white trash out there who can be just as wicked to other people as black youth. She disagreed. She said she thought that black youth were particularly troubling.

She recounted a story told by a friend who was evacuated on a bus or train. Boarding that vehicle was a black woman who issued a deluge of vulgarities on the other passengers. A white woman seated next to her daughter spoke up to ask the woman to please stop using that kind of language in front of her daughter. The black woman responded by getting in the face of the white woman and insulting her. Fortunately, another black woman on the vehicle defended the white woman. The point is, whites will never be able to change black attitudes. They’re going to have to do it for themselves. Until they do, whites — especially racist whites — will have a justification for defending their attitudes. Meanwhile, blacks who chose to live an alternative lifestyle (alternative from mainstream norms) will have to struggle against a tide of prejudicial attitudes.

My conversation with Janet provides an interesting contrast to a conversation about race I had a couple of weeks ago with a white woman. I’ll just say her name was Wendy. She was very emotional in contending that Lawson and the Gretna police who blocked people from crossing the bridge were racist. I didn’t disagree, but I think I failed to convince her that she wasn’t providing a fair picture of that discrete incident, nor did she provide (in my opinion), a fair assessment of what the causes are of racism generally.

To Wendy, the images of looting in New Orleans, the reports of gun-toting gangs, the burning of Oakwood Mall on the West Bank — none of it was enough to justify a law enforcement blockade on the bridge. Again, I didn’t disagree with her, but neither could I discount the fear that people may have felt about who may have been in that group crossing the bridge — and fear harbored not just by racist whites, but by blacks as well.

I explained to Wendy what I heard blacks in the Lower Ninth Ward say about crime in their neighborhood. Many said that the only good thing to come out of Hurricane Katrina was that all the drug dealers and baggy-pants gangstas were gone, and they hoped they’d never come back. Of course, that’s a steep penalty to pay for the benefit of getting rid of criminals, but if unenlightened whites took the time to talk to other blacks, they’d discover that one can differentiate and discriminate based upon appearances — blacks themselves do it. Are whites any more wrong to discriminate based on a person’s appearance than blacks? Are whites then justified in discriminating? Blacks and whites have much more in common than they have differences.

A better solution to the Greater New Orleans bridge standoff may have been a plan to sort through the group and isolate possible troublemakers. Of course, that no alternative occurred to the Gretna PD other than shooting at the group and ordering them to turn back is a pretty good indication that their motivation was racist, plain and simple.

How does this relate to the rebuilding of New Orleans? We have to get to the core of these issues about racism and fear in order to be honest about what sort of community we desire. I think we need to call our racist attitudes for what they are — for how those attitudes arise out of specific memories or fears. We need to ask ourselves why we may be leaving some people out of the process due to prejudicial attitudes.

Why do the white and black communities so often exclude the other? What are the issues of trust and fear? Can the undesireable elements of each be tackled directly, so that more productive relationships can be established?

It is just as much a disservice to race relations to say that all blacks are criminals as it is to imply that all whites are racists. Am I a racist to say that I’m afraid of dudes in baggy pants who look at me like they want to tear my head off? Are blacks racists who go around accusing whites of blowing up the levees?

There are a lot of things that have been lost in New Orleans, and a lot of things that will never return. A lot of those things were a part of the New Orleans character I love thanks to the rich cultural heritage and incredible vibrancy of the city’s black population. Nevertheless, there are quite a few things that I wish would never return — many of those are found in the black community. Similarly, there are a many things in New Orleans I love that are part of the white cultural heritage, but quite a few as well that I hope never return.

Can we build a city where the barriers between races are toppled, offering a much more promising future for New Orleans, or will the old prejudices and fears re-establish themselves? Indeed, can New Orleans even be rebuilt without addressing the core issues behind the race divide?


3 Responses to “Let’s talk about the racial thing”

  1. You touched on a lot of issues in your post and I can only hope to even touch on one or two! The first step is to encourage better paying jobs in the area and try to offset the economic imbalances (a HUGE pipedream). The race/class issue is one that occurs across the US, regardless of locale… the south just happens to have the legacy of slavery and has had to deal with it longer as a result it is more entrenched in the culture, but you see the results of racism everywhere in our fair country. A major part of the problem is that what’s happening to New Orleans, is a nation-wide issue; a gutting of basic services and infrastructure due to an eroding tax-base, the richest in the US continue to get richer and the porrest continue down the slippery slope of poverty and wasted resources fighting an illegal war and too many people are asleep while this occurs. Katrina and its aftermath was wake up call to a few people, but I’m afraid it was too few and too late. Most of the country has “moved on” from news of Katrina…

    Good post, BTW… this crap needs to be discussed.

  2. Tim said

    An outstanding post and discussion. Yes, race is a problem that comes from all sides and damages all sides. The city has a “disadvantaged business enterprises” program to help “non-traditional” business owners get city contracts. But I can tell you first-hand that it is being abused by all involved, and no one is really learning or gaining from it. Everyone just “plays the system.” Meanwhile, deep-seated race issues go unresolved. Let’s talk about this more, and let’s be open to all opinions.

  3. Pawpaw said

    One question re: the bridge incident. How are the police supposed to “sort through the group and isolate possible troublemakers”? That sounds like profiling to me, and we all know that the po-lice can’t do any profiling. If, of course, we start detaining people on the premise of possible future criminality, then a whole new set of problems emerge.

    Better to turn the whole group around and face the civil suit that is bound to follow. The Gretna Police were in unfamiliar territory, and in a lose-lose situation. They chose the lesser of two evils.

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