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KATRINA

Black snakes, white spiders

Denying the racial aspect of the disaster is denying our history and our humanity. Acknowledging it can lead to action

September 18, 2005|Leonce Gaiter | Leonce Gaiter is the author of "Bourbon Street," a novel about race and class in New Orleans.

KATRINA"We exhibit a similar fear response to a spider, a snake, and a person of another race."

-- Arne Ohman, Science Magazine

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I WAS FASCINATED to watch white reporters and commentators tip-toeing around the taboo word "black" in Hurricane Katrina's aftermath. Class, not race, they said, was the reason black people were wading in neck-high water with their belongings on their heads. Class, not race, they insisted, was why these black people had to live for days in their own feces and urine in a dank hotbox of a stadium -- which is akin to insisting that your right leg carried you from point A to point B and ignoring the contribution of your left.

The reaction of whites toward blacks has been a lifelong study for me. Though black, I have spent 95% of my life around whites. White schools, white neighborhoods, white workplaces, white friends. I was raised during the '60s, and my New Orleans-bred parents insisted on living in the best neighborhoods with the best schools. They got out of the South to make that possible, and if a white Northern school or neighborhood was hostile, so be it. It was the price they, and I, would have to pay.

Some of you are ready to wag your finger in black America's face and say, "See! His family could do it. What's your excuse?"

But my mother was a brilliant woman, and my father possessed a Herculean will that allowed him to escape a poor, fatherless family of 15 children in a racist dung-hole of a Louisiana town and make a comfortable, decidedly middle-class life for himself and his family in an aggressively hostile military. And he did it without currying white favor by betraying or abandoning the black men and women with whom he served.

Do you possess the brains and will to overcome so much and go so far? If not, put that finger away.

Being raised in a sometimes hostile white world has taught me that we are all racists. Our little post-monkey brains (evolutionarily speaking) are suspicious of that which is unlike us, and to such we are more likely to assign nefarious motives and intentions.

A recent Science magazine article describes research suggesting that fear informs the attitudes between ethnic groups in part because negative associations stick more easily and relentlessly to faces that don't look like ours. When researchers paired faces with frightening images, white participants acquired more persistent conditioned fears in response to pictures of black faces than to pictures of white faces, and blacks did the same thing with white faces. This fear response leads to avoidance, which prevents us from knowing people who aren't like us and makes them a blank slate for projections that justify our fears.

To me, this seems a simple recitation of the obvious. However, many Americans have a deep national investment in our myth of unassailable moral rectitude. Our history and founding myths insist on a superior sense of justice as our birthright, our national raison d'etre.

Black Americans have more license to admit our wariness and mistrust of whites. Whites cannot admit their mistrust without summoning their forebears brutal enslavement of Africans. You can't feign moral rectitude as you simultaneously acknowledge the bestial inhumanity that lurks in our American history. Many Americans look at black men and women and see an unwelcome reminder. TVs filled with scenes of black despair call forth the holds of slave ships, and so we spend days pretending that we don't notice the race of those hungry, grieving, angry, exhausted people.

A conservative tide has worked hard to strengthen the denial of our American crime -- to convince Americans that our record of race hatred is either black Americans' fault or our hysterical imaginings. Some conservatives promote the idea of colorblindness, which is akin to eyelessness as a cure for urban blight. Suggesting that you can deny what is before your eyes -- insisting that you have the will and power to ignore both it and its vast historical implications -- is breathtaking hubris.

To many, blacks aren't so much citizens as threats to the majority's sense of self. In the wake of Katrina, a headline in the Economist blared "America's Shame," rubbing salt in our punctured sense of righteousness. Pundits insisted that race, not class, was the source of that shame. But history is a living thing. It didn't disappear in 1964. In New Orleans, in particular, race and class have been conjoined twins for centuries. The 9th Ward is flood- and poverty-prone -- low-lying and low in the city's class structure. It's no coincidence that its people are among the city's blackest. This is where they were forced to live, and this is the only place many feel they have the right to live, anchored there by a "can't-have" hopelessness implanted in generations born to shackles.

White people see these people standing on rooftops, pleading for help, and attach all sorts of ugly associations. That's natural -- but acceptable only if they recognize it as an expression of our inescapably flawed history and humanity. Own the shame, America. It is as much a part of you as your triumphs and glories. Own it, and you might take action.

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