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Levees let loose an ugly flood of black paranoia

Some leaders are spreading myths--as unfair as they are untrue--that are doing damage to us all.

October 02, 2005|Joe R. Hicks | JOE R. HICKS is a social critic and the vice president of Community Advocates. He formerly headed the Los Angeles offices of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

DO YOU THINK a racist blew up New Orleans' levees during Hurricane Katrina so that African Americans would be flooded out of their homes? Probably not, if you're white. Could be, if you're black.

"I heard from a very reliable source who saw a 25-foot crater under the levee breach," Nation of Islam minister Louis Farrakhan said on television recently. "It may have been blown up to destroy the black part of town and keep the white part dry."

You'd think this would only make sense to someone in the Nation of Islam, an organization that has taught that white people were "created" by a mad black scientist about 6,000 years ago. Yet the "theory" has received widespread Internet attention.

Eugene Robinson, a Washington Post columnist, spoke on NBC's "Meet the Press" of "reasonable, sober people who really believe that."

What would make folks accept the notion that whites, with an apparent expertise in race-specific explosives, would blow up New Orleans' levees, making much of an American city virtually unlivable? Generations of hearing "reasonable" people preach racial victimization.

According to recent nationwide polling, two-thirds of black people believe that the federal government would have responded more swiftly to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina had the victims been white. Three out of four whites say the response would have been the same, regardless of the victims' skin color.

Rapper Kanye West, on a nationally televised benefit for flood victims, said that "George Bush doesn't care about black people."

Later, Princeton University professor Cornel West agreed, adding: "From slave ships to the Superdome was not that big a journey."

Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic Party, told a meeting of the Baptists' Political and Social Justice Commission, "We must come to terms with the ugly truth that skin color, age and economics played a deadly role in who survived and who did not."

In 1995, a Washington Post survey asked middle-class blacks whether they thought "past and present discrimination" is the reason for problems within the black community -- 84% said "yes." And 43% of Latinos in the same survey said that "past and present discrimination" holds them back.

Blacks were also asked about the effects of discrimination on Latinos and 58% of those polled said that racism and discrimination were factors in preventing upward mobility.

Similarly, only 31% of Asians said they felt that racism was an impediment to progress, but 41% of blacks felt that Asians suffered from the effects of discrimination.

A chorus of voices charges that America's racist past has changed little, if at all. That position ignores four decades of obvious improvement.

By all indications, more Americans than ever are comfortable living in integrated communities; at ease with ethnic, religious and cultural "diversity;" willing to vote for politicians who don't share the voter's skin color; and unconcerned about interracial dating and marriage.

Forty years ago, a black secretary of State wouldn't have toured the devastated Gulf Coast states, as did Condoleezza Rice (herself a native Southerner), and "back in the day," New Orleans would not have had a black mayor and certainly would not have had a black police chief.

Bigots do live among us, and all discrimination has not gone away. But only someone with an agenda would ignore or diminish the signs of progress.

Those stirring the racial pot have done lasting damage to this nation's race relations.

According to a poll by the Pew Research Center, 7 of 10 blacks say that the recent disaster in New Orleans shows that racial inequality remains a major problem in America. A majority of whites disagrees.

Seventeen percent of whites said they feel that the response time to the disaster would have been faster had the victims been white. Two-thirds of blacks agree with this view.

It's nearly impossible to reconcile the differences of perception found in this poll. But if racism among whites remains a default position in our society, how are we supposed to interpret the massive outpouring of emotion and dollars for Katrina's victims, who are indeed overwhelmingly black and poor?

In fact, more money has been raised in the U.S. for these people than for the families of the 9/11 victims, or for the survivors of the tsunami that recently struck East Asia.

To be sure, the imagery from New Orleans poses troubling questions. Why are so many urban areas in our nation, from Compton to Baltimore, populated by poor, black Americans?

The answer offered by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Dean and others -- that America has abandoned its blacks and poor -- is as unfair as it is untrue.

The Congressional Research Service released a study in 1996 that argued that despite the expenditure of $5.4 trillion (in constant dollars) since 1960 on federal anti-poverty programs, the poverty rate was higher in 1996 than it was in 1965. That kind of money can hardly be considered abandonment, and it was spent on both whites and blacks.

Clearly the nation needs to find new ways to fight poverty and work harder at that serious task. Blaming racism for all the ills that afflict this nation's black population further handicaps those wanting to be safer, healthier and more productive.

Yet, as Booker T. Washington put it more than 90 years ago, "There is a certain class of race-problem solvers who don't want the patient to get well because as long as the disease holds out, they have not only an easy means of making a living but also an easy medium through which to make themselves prominent before the public."

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