Lately, I've been lamenting the fact that there hasn't been some enervating, hot-blooded controversy through my comments. My friend over at Suddenly Susan and I were actually at an alumni function yesterday, trying to think of some things for me to blog about to spark a new discussion. In my inbox, I was grateful to find the following email for two reasons: 1) it was something with which to spark discussion, 2) I was really glad to see a listener respectfully disagree with me and actually write in to say so. I love to respectfully disagree with people – I think we all tend to come out more informed after locking intellectual horns a bit. I actually agree with most of the points with this listener, although I think my perspective and context is a bit different. See what you think.
In any case, it was a good excuse to further explain what I was thinking about with podcast #7 and the post that accompanied it ("Bin Laden Didn't Blow Up the Projects"). I felt I owed listeners a bit more than the angry rant I gave that day, so I'd like to thank the listener who sent in the email below for taking the time to truly start a conversation with me. Here's the letter, in which I show a bit more where my assertions and associated assumptions are coming from. The letter:
Dear Mr. Hurt,
In recent weeks, I've discovered you're podcast and I've enjoyed it very much. I'm trying to go back and listen to all of them. They've been useful and insightful.
However, today I listened to episode 7 and I just have to respond. In all fairness, some time has passed since you recorded that podcast and so I'm writing this with the advantage of hindsight that you didn't have when you wrote your comments. However, a lot of my first impressions that I had at that time have not changed.
First of all, I have to tell you that I was highly offended by your comment:
Leave it to the rightist and the racists in the South – as well as those peppered throughout our government, which happens to be headed by the king of them all – to chalk up to racial characteristics the depravity of those driven to desperate acts of immorality because of circumstances.
The first and most obvious point about your quote is you equate rightists with racists. Aren't there any leftists who are racists as well? Are you calling me a racists because I consider myself politically right of center? Or are you letting me off the hook because I have never once blamed anyone's race for their behavior as I don't believe that one's race is a determinant of one's behavior? Or maybe I'm off the hook because although I did live in New Orleans for a time, I was not born and raised there nor anywhere else in the South. If so, I must thank you for your kind generosity, because I hate people accusing me of being a racist just because of where I might fall on the political spectrum.
Accusing someone or racism is a serious matter. To someone who doesn't consider themselves racist, it's like a slap in the face. It is also the further perpetration of a stereotype that just isn't true. Yes, many rightists' are racists, but so are many leftists' and centrists' and what ever -ist' you want to invent. I am really curious as to how the rightists' in New Orleans have created a permanent underclass and continues to keep them down. Maybe you're not familiar with New Orleans or Louisiana politics, but let me tell you, there are not many rightists in power, nor have there ever been. Rightists were not the ones to herd so many people up and dump them into the horrendous projects that even the residence despise. Rightists are not the ones in control of the terrible schools there that fail to provide a proper education to all the citizens (education as I'm sure you know is a vital component of breaking out of poverty). I'd like to know how rightists, who have so little power in New Orleans, are responsible for the plight of the poor. I mean, if most of the people of New Orleans vote for the candidate who is left of center, doesn't that mean that most of the people there are leftists and therefore not racist at all and there is no racism at all in New Orleans?
Something else I find ironic about your piece is how you failed to mention the thousands of Americans of all race, color and creed, who were helping those in need. Many people opened up there homes to total strangers. Many others donated their hard earned money and time to charities. What about those who were operating rescue missions, risking their lives in the midst of a disaster. It seems to me, there was a lot more good taking place than bad. I think it was touching to see the many kind acts of charity and displays of heroism on the part of so many Americans. I find it sad that you would see it as Americans not caring. No, the American people did care. It was not the American people that let the people of New Orleans down, rather it was the government, on all levels that did.
I studied disaster response and management as part of my undergraduate degree. I've worked on several real and simulated disasters. I'm familiar with the processes and responsibilities that the various levels of governments and agencies have in a disaster. With time we have found out that much of the suffering of the people left behind were because of the local and state government. It was the state that was blocking the truckloads of food and water from entering the city, as they didn't want to encourage people to stay behind. It was the city that didn't follow its own disaster plan and utilize school and city buses to evacuate the poor. Now don't get me wrong, the federal response was bungled as well and it started from the top by Bush not taking the disaster seriously and his appointment of an absolute idiot to head FEMA (cronyism is basically inefficient no matter what country). Not to mention the bi-partisan effort to include FEMA as part of the Office of Homeland Security. The blame seems to spread quite far. You can ever go back further and blame those who didn't strengthen the levees when they had the chance. A lot of money was sent to Louisiana for flood control efforts but it seems the money was reallocated to other "more important" projects. How sad. Disaster mitigation is something that all states and municipalities are guilty of. Are these all the faults of rightists?
But lets talk about where racism was quite blatant, and that was on the part of the media. Blacks going into a store were looters, where whites were just procuring a few necessities. For some reason, the media didn't seem to think that blacks were entitled to break open a corner store and get food and bottled water like whites were. Stories of rapes and murder were reported as fact, while later it was learned that those rumors were false. If it were a bunch of whites, would they have been more careful about confirming the validity of their stories? Maybe, who's to know? These false stories led many rescuers to not go in and rescue those who were stranded. The media's behavior during the crisis is something that I'm sure will be looked at and analyzed more in the future. But wait a minute; is the media just a bunch of rightists? Doesn't appear that way to me. Most are definitely to the left of me.
Finally, I'd like to know where Bush made a comment that would fit your accusation that he ¡°chalk up to racial characteristics the depravity of those driven to desperate acts of immorality because of circumstances.¡± Now, I'm no fan of Bush, I didn't even vote for him (I said I'm right of center, I didn't say I was a Republican), but I just don't recall him chalking up anyone's actions to their race. If he did, please send me the documentation because I'd like to see it and publish it further as such comments should be displayed where everyone can see them for the idiocy that they would be.
Now, I'm not going to stop listening to your podcasts nor am I going to tell you to revise what you said. It still enjoy your podcasts and it's nice to know there is someone else out there who goes to coffee shops even though he hates coffee and has never eaten at Outback Steakhouse.
I have no problem civilly disagreeing with others. This is your podcast, you can say what ever you want. But I will also voice my disagreement if I feel it is necessary. Every American that I have talked to, were outraged by what happened in New Orleans, and yet, from your podcast, one would get the impressions that Americans didn't care, nor did they find the failed response disgraceful. Incidentally, it should be mentioned that failed responses are a lot more common than most Americans think, it doesn't matter if the victims are black or white everything in-between. And yet people still expect the government to take care of them and are surprised when it can't. That is where the lunacy really lies.
Thanks for the civil response. I agree with you about most of the specifics of your points. And I'm also glad that you gave me a little credit for having simply been angry at the time; the fallout over FEMA, the news about many Americans coming together and really coming through for those in need, as well as a whole swathe of information as to what specifically went wrong – these all come with the advantage of hindsight, which I didn't have at the time.
Yet, the only reason I haven't taken down the post, despite the obvious charitable and humane actions of many Americans that followed, is that the overall structural conditions that created the situation in the first place still exist, as do the attitudes (including racism) that undergird them.
Put quite frankly, the right is far more full of people who make policies based on racial politics. "Racist" is quite a strong word, but I think the kind of racists I'm talking about – people whose politics are motivated by negative or even malicious regard of a specific race – are the ones who've created this kind of problem. The funny thing about race after the 1960's is the fact that it is simply no longer acceptable to think and make decisions in overtly racial terms – it's no longer fashionable to be a racist and no one wants to call themselves such. But the simple fact of the matter is that the #1 dependent variable – the key factor upon which all many others depend in looking critically at certain social problems in the United States – is race.
It's the motivator behind white flight to the suburbs, to not having fixed the obvious inequities created by the property-tax based way of allocating funding for schools, behind the highly discriminatory anti-drug laws that have helped destroy the black community from the mid-1980s (counseling, probation, and lenient sentences for white cocaine users with good lawyers, mandatory and significant jail sentences for blacks caught with any amount of "crack"), the fact that blacks get assigned the death sentence at extraordinarily higher rates for committing the same crimes as white offenders, the politics of "social meanness" and the laws that many sociologists have pointed out as having been aimed primarily at what has been coded as "urban" (read "black and latino") problems, e.g. the "three strikes" laws that have been putting many people of color behind bars for life, or the recent passage of laws pioneered in California to crack down on youth crime by allowing minors to be prosecuted as adults, despite the fact that crime in general has been rapidly declining over the last 10 years, contrary to the popular opinion that is fanned by – you guessed it –rightists. The people who supported Proposition 21 were all – as far as I could tell – white, from the upper class, and from the political right (Republican). It was funded and pushed through by conservative groups. The effects of such laws are racist in effect, whatever you might say about intent. Under US law, such an effect is grounds for classifying a law as discriminatory. This was the basis of the Supreme Court's 1971 Griggs v. Duke Power case, in which the precedent for defining the "disparate impact" of ostensibly "neutral" tests and standards. Of course, this was in employment law, but if the principle were applied to the constitutionality of all laws, I'd love to see the effects.
When I watched the imagery used to push that proposition through, everyone knew who was being talked about – young, black, and wild men who whites feared were going to ravage their (and I do mean "they", since racist housing covenants and unspoken agreements still prevent many blacks from moving to many white areas – so much that many blacks do not even try, which has led to the popping up of many black middle and upper-middle class suburbs around major cities such as Atlanta in recent years) gated communities, or even if not criminals themselves, "bring down the property values." The policies of Ronald Reagan's administration, enabled by the appearance of a then-new "Moral Majority" and the subsequent policies of Bush the Senior had huge negative impacts on people of color. But more than this, race was overtly used as key wedge issues in getting such people and their policies into power – Willie Horton, anyone?
I'm not trying to paint everyone with the same brush. But the majority of rightists are white, Protestant, and republican. The politics of this "side" are clearly anathema to the interests of black folks. That's why over 90% of blacks vote democrat and always have over the past 40 years. Are the dems perfect? No? Do they continue some of the same harmful policies that an overwhlemingly white power structure has created? Yes. But blacks know where most of the hard-heartedness towards them lies, as well as the origins of most of the policies that have negatively affected them – these are from the political right.
And you should know that most blacks are very politically conservative when you break it down, and would make for good republicans, actually. Most blacks are Protestant. Homosexuality and gay rights get a cold reception in black culture. Most blacks support "tough on crime" policies in theory. But where that all ends is in terms of politics toward race. Everyone knows where "big government" benefits black folks and where attempts to provide it have come from.
As for the assertion that everyone of all political stripes is simply equally racist – I do not think so. Sure, everyone has feeling about people of other races and associated prejudices of some type. There are even occasionally some crazy black folks – mostly individuals, mind you – who get a lot of attention for saying silly stuff like "we have to exterminate all white people" or something, which popped up in recent weeks around one crazy professor. But even crazy assertions such as these are simply reactionary responses to an ongoing pattern that has existed for centuries.
The folks in New Orleans, the system that created their situations, as well as the initial tepid nature of the nation's response to them – the whole thing is basically a symbol of the bigger picture. Since the abolition of slavery, black folks have never gotten a fair shake. And this is primarily not because of "progressive" policies (interpreting the word "progress" as something that breaks away and moves morally "forward" away from established, accepted – "conservative" – ways of doing things).
Reconstruction was working, contrary to older historical interpretations of the era and its policies, and blacks were constructively participating in politics, more children (black and white) were enrolled in schools than ever in Southern history, public works projects to rebuild all parts and types of southern cities were under way – there was ZERO political reprisal from blacks. Things were going well for folks of all colors after slavery. Find any recent, respected historical scholarship to point out this fact. Even the standard historical representation of the period was the result of "conservative" sources that wanted to taint the memory of this era. 1/5 of those who fought on the side of the patriots during the Revolution were black, and blacks were a major pillar upon which the North came to depend after 1862, when things started going badly for the Union. That's why we got the "Emancipation Proclamation" that freed all blacks IN THE SOUTH ONLY, as to weaken the South by a) reducing their productive power and hence capital, and b) encouraging those specific former slaves to become soldiers for the north. The radical wing of the Republicans were responsible for most of Reconstruction's policies, but got sold down the river (along with the blacks they were trying to help) in the compromise of 1876. And for nearly a hundred years, the institution of "sharecropping," Jim Crow laws, discriminatory social practices in general, as well as the racial terrorists who viciously enforced them, kept black folks down for nearly another decade. Nothing essentially changed for black folks for nearly a century.
Post WWII, even as the legitimacy of racial nationalism and fascism had been given a knockout blow forever, black folks' hopes of "double victory" at home and abroad were to be dashed forever. Racist policies basically eliminated the benefits of the GI Bill for blacks; since almost no college would accept African-Americans, there were few places at which to take advantage of this valuable voucher. As for the Federal Housing Administration, which was a major factor behind the creation of the white middle class and beautiful suburbs, blacks were completely shut out of its benefits. No loans to any of the places where white housing covenants kept them out (this means everywhere), and it was stated policy of the federal government, via this institution, to support this practice.
And when you don't have a home or major property of your own, you don't have collateral to borrow against when you want to do something big, such as start a business or send your kid to a pricey college. You can't fund your new, experimental film project, open a gallery exhibition that might fail, or undertake some other risky venture that often results in great things. Black folks, on the other hand, are often simply worried about the things they need to get by and ensure as much happiness as possible in the meanwhile. Some people might say that whites have always had the privilege to be eccentric, or "think different," or go against the grain. In the end, I would simply add the word "financial" in front of the p-word when talking about the ways in which economics often can influence hopes, identity, and even the sense of what is "possible." For blacks, it has always taken guts to even dream on the same level as white folks.
So after the easy loans, financial incentives, and free college tuitions for white WWII vets, by the time the 1960's roll around, you start seeing the obvious effects. By the time the 1970's end and American heavy industry starts flagging along with the greater economy, we were witness to the deindustrialization of most major cities, the disappearance of jobs, followed by the inevitable flight of services and other support elements of the economy. Around that time, real "white flight" is well underway, already underway in terms of these economic factors, but exacerbated by the social tensions created by the policies of sudden racial integration. For better or worse, white and black folks were not used to living together in the suburbs. It had been that way, as pointed out above, ever since there had been suburbs.
The appearance of crack cocaine and the subsequent arms race that took place between the gangs that started to run it were the death knell for many inner city communities. The CIA's relationship with drug cartels (not the "conspiracy theory" that many who haven't actually read the well-documented reports that have been heavily suppressed by the supposedly "liberal media" – the first of which was the San Jose Mercury News' series on the subject) is responsible for this then-brand-new drug being introduced at cutthroat-cheap prices. Let me just say this, before the accusations of "conspiracy theorist" begin.
The CIA did not supply drugs to the black community. It did not sell drugs to black people. I am well aware of these facts. I am a reasonable person, swayed by compelling evidence. But it did look the other way as unsavory characters under CIA protection found ways to get weapons to the anti-Communist Contras by any means necessary, without thinking too much about where the capital was coming from. Why do you think Oliver North had his right hand in the air and his left holding his ass while testifying in front of Congress? Because he had sex with an intern? But we all done forgot about that.
Moving on, the discriminatory drug laws that followed in the understandable social reaction that tried to stem the tide of this sudden drug "epidemic" in effect doubly punished blacks by discriminatorily holding them accountable for the introduction of a drug trade with which they had nothing, in its creation, to do. How many kids selling a "rock" on the street know any Columbian drug lords? Are we surprised to see – in communities shut out of the America dream, in which there has been the creation of a permanent "underclass," and through which the plague of drugs and the violence it brought with it has ravaged non-stop for two decades – are we surprised to see kids get caught up in the very environment that much bigger societal forces have created?
I'm all about personal responsibility and cracking down on the immoral. I don't believe a person should be cut any slack for committing murder, rape, or wresting things from the weak. But ours is a system in which a kid in California can get thrown in jail for life for having committed three non-violent "felonies" (petty theft or "tagging" public property with a spray paint can) but a corporate raider will get a few months or even a couple of years (oh, the humanity!) in a country club prison for stealing millions? It's just a coincidence that the majority of the kids in the former case are black or Latino and that in the latter case, the corporate raider is always a white man? The laws of the land just "happened to" come down that way? Or were they designed to protect those in power, who are nearly always white?
Am I a "racist" for pointing out this obvious fact? That white men are still in charge of the society and continue to shape the laws and institutions to benefit them? And I am not saying that white men do not allow laws and institutions to change to allow the non-white and non-male to start a little benefitting of their own. But only to the extent to which others' benefitting does not preclude on theirs. And this certainly precludes anything that would directly clash with the power structure's interests.
This is why you'll never see reparations given to black folks and why it will never even enter the realm of acceptable debate. We're not just talking about slavery, but about all those things above. Why can't black folks be given special breaks on loans to get their own homes or open a business, since they were clearly denied such chances BY LAW for decades? Is this "reverse discrimination?" What about addressing the REAL discrimination that was responsible for white folks being able to get homes, start businesses, and get college educations and ACTIVELY prevented black folks from doing the same? Isn't it continuing a pattern of discrimination to act as if the playing field is level when in actuality, the entire stadium was tilted in favor of whites from its very foundation?
So when Jadakiss and Mos Def talk about Bin Laden not having "blown up" the projects, they're pointing all this out – in as angry and inflammatory fashion as possible, of course. But I don't think their anger is unjustified. In fact, their meta-argument is quite historically sound. Check out a few books, which are not all written by bleeding-heart "liberals," by the way. These are academically sound, well-reviewed major texts in their fields. You won't find many people disagreeing with their data and initial conclusions as to the causes of socio-economic disparity between blacks and whites; most disagreement is simply about policy recommendations as to how to address it. But we all know that "trickle-down" is bullshit because it a) didn't work, and b) bankrupted both the economy and morality of our nation. What Americans have to do is roll up their sleeves, put pride in the pocket, and look racism straight in the eye and admit – it's me. So instead of denying it, or feeling uselessly guilty about it, ask the question, "What am I going to do about it?"
But that won't happen. The American discourse about race is so juvenile, paranoid, defensive on the right and laden with "identity politics" and counter-productive, separatist notions on the left that a real conversation is impossible. But don't get me wrong – the source of the problem is the "conservative" side, as much criticism as I can and do heap on those on the "progressive" side who seem to be concerned about navel-gazing, secondary issues.
When it is said that "Bin Laden Didn't Blow Up the Projects", the real focus of the message has little to do with the origins of the September 11th attacks; what is being pointed out is the irony that the "projects" and other black ghettoes, which look as barren and ravaged as any other place that had actually been bombed out, wasn't the work of bin Laden or any terrorist. What is being pointed out is that as horrified as America is over the thousands who died during the fiery, spectacular flashes of smoke and fire that day, who cries for the black bodies and minds being neglected, abused, and often destroyed by the much slower processes of a racist system?
That's how this is particularly similar to the Katrina situation. The problem created there is the same as that which created the black ghettoes in NYC. But this time, the main attraction and source of embarrassment was the obvious fact of the existence of a black underclass, one with more direct roots all the way back to slave days. In this case, bin Laden didn't blow up the projects, but Katrina certainly did blow the lid off of a situation most would have preferred to have continued to ignore.
I am glad that Americans came in with help and assistance, and that humanitarian concerns temporarily trumped the politics of race and class; but that's not a triumph, nor is it a solution. Then real work remains to be done, and if anything good can be said to have come from Katrina, it is the fact that she blew the rug off a problem that many think is better left out of sight, and is enabled most often not out of the pure spite or racist rage of the KKK – but the guilt, embarrassment, or the confusing discomfort caused by the one issue that Americans would rather avoid. This is what enables the kind of racist structural patterns that have been in place well before many well-intentioned white Americans (as well as folks of other stripes) were born.
The books I was talking about above:
- Black Wealth, White Wealth, written by Oliver and Shapiro
- The Declining Significance of Race (before actually reading the text, or at least about it, please refrain from harping on the title as me "contradicting" my arguments before actually reading the text) or any of his subsequent monographs, written by William Julius Wilson, a black Harvard sociologist who is anything but what you would call "liberal"
- Racial Formation in the United States, written by Michael Omi