In this alternet article Robert Jensen talks about what all people of color already know: in America, white is standard, all else is deviant. He also utters an opinion we have all at one time, secretly or loudly, held: white people are the problem with race in this country.
That is the new White People's Burden, to understand that we are the problem, come to terms with what that really means, and act based on that understanding. Our burden is to do something that doesn't seem to come natural to people in positions of unearned power and privilege: Look in the mirror honestly and concede that we live in an unjust society and have no right to some of what we have. We should not affirm ourselves. We should negate our whiteness. Strip ourselves of the illusion that we are special because we are white. Steel ourselves so that we can walk in the world fully conscious and try to see what is usually invisible to us white people. We should learn to ask ourselves, "How does it feel to be the problem?"
The Journal Race Traitor, goes Jensen one better by advocating a "New Abolitionism":
The key to solving the social problems of our age is to abolish the white race, which means no more and no less than abolishing the privileges of the white skin. Until that task is accomplished, even partial reform will prove elusive, because white influence permeates every issue, domestic and foreign, in U.S. society.
The existence of the white race depends on the willingness of those assigned to it to place their racial interests above class, gender, or any other interests they hold. The defection of enough of its members to make it unreliable as a predictor of behavior will lead to its collapse.
Yes, it's true, the white-blindess. Yes, it's terribly frustrating fighting this battle against a dominant majority that abhors racism in the abstract, but can't see the reality of it. Yes, it's wonderful to hear white commentators and activists starting to get the clue. But racial finger-pointing to the exclusion of all else? It's tempting for privileged multiracials like me still licking school-age wounds and filtering out the low-level background noise of being daily stereotyped. But I'm sitting in a dry apartment in San Francisco blogging with electricity from my own walls and drinking water from my own tap.
Maybe after all it's not just white people and rich people who are the problem. Maybe it's also middle-class people who are the problem. Check out John Scalzi's already classic post on what being poor is like. It highlights something that has long been an item of ethnic studies: that the racial divide is not just a cultural but an experiential divide. So, also, the class divide. The simple, now homicidally naive question, "why don't they just leave?" is the latest, most transparent manifestation of that experiential divide. For the middle-class, no matter how cash-strapped, decision and action are the experience of life. "We should evacuate" is followed by evacuation. There is a relative somewhere, a credit card, a car. As this Washington Post article from yesterday demonstrates, for 100,000 people in New Orleans, there simply weren't such things.
The question of the extent of the responsibility of a dominant majority to recognize itself as a problem to the impoverished minority seems awfully naive in the face of the decisions of national, state and even local authorities to sell out poor blacks (not to mention poor whites) for corporate tax breaks. The floodwaters have come home to roost and, at least for the moment, blindness to race issues and class issues isn't entirely possible.
Today's article by Lynne Duke and Teresa Wiltz in The Washington Post begins a new discussion:
To talk about race, for those who are weary of it, is to invite glazed-over eyes and stifled yawns -- or even hostility. But Katrina blew open the box, putting the urban poor front and center, with images of once-invisible folks pleading from rooftops, wading through flooded streets, starving at the Superdome and requiring a massive federal outlay of resources. Or dead, wheelchairs pushed up against the wall, a blanket thrown over still bodies. The Other is there, staring us in the face, exposing our issues on an international stage.
... The fact is, the most vulnerable victims of Katrina, though largely black, are also poor whites and Latinos. The poor are paying the highest price. So it is no wonder that Katrina has re-ignited the debate over race and class. There are those who argue, as does Manning Marable, director of Columbia University's Center for Contemporary Black History, that "the class element is inextricably bound to the race element." It has always been so because of the way policies and laws historically have been framed.
The much-blogged opposing "looting" vs. "finding" captions on photos of black and white scavengers seemed to miss an essential point. While we dry, fed, electrified Americans were objecting to the terms the media were using to characterize blacks and whites, both blacks and whites, as well as Latinos, and presumably--although the media hasn't mentioned them yet--Asians were starving and dying of thirst on the Gulf Coast. The majority of the poor in cities like New Orleans are black, but that is the product of history, not immediate disaster relief policies. Part of the attitude toward "the poor" our country abandoned to this disaster has to do with the fact that "the poor" are predominantly black. But, photo-captioning aside, it was "the poor" in general who were left to their fates, and we can't ignore the fact that many of those poor are white.
It's hard to find footing in this new territory. Whenever you want to blame it on race, there are pictures of impoverished whites trapped in their attics, not just in New Orleans, but all along the hurricane coast. Whenever you want to blame it on class, you can't help but notice that the impoverished of New Orleans and environs are overwhelmingly black. It's a sucker-punch not just for smug, white liberals, but for screaming, middle-class, ethnic activists. What stance to take? What policy to promote? Where to give money? How to vote? When to act? Whom to be angry with? ... How to feel?
If anything good will come out of this disaster, it will be a new, visceral understanding of the facts that both race oppression and class oppression are alive and well in America. But a simplistic understanding of either out of the context of the other is useless, as the legions of starving and drowned attest. I'm too angry and sad to understand any of this now. I only know that I have a lot of thinking to do in the coming years. The destruction of New Orleans is an enormous tragedy that brings with it the enormous opportunity of reconstruction. I'm not talking about the physical reconstruction of the city or the port. I'm talking about the opportunity of a more equitable reconstruction of the city's public resources and infrastructure, one that starts at the bottom by recognizing the cost of ignoring inequality in any form--and one that employs new strategies to overcome historical injustices still all too present.
Pray to Whatever that this particular discussion doesn't recede with the flood waters.
More recent discussion on the race/class issue:
• Seattle Times, "Was rescue a race, class issue?"
• NorthJersey.com, "Disaster highlights issues of race, class"
• The Roanoke Times, "Race, class disparity torn open by Katrina"
• Canada's Globe & Mail, "Katrina's Toll: Disaster Bares Divisions of Race and Class Across the Gulf States"
• The New York Times, "What Happens to a Race Deferred"
• Here is a chronological links dump of Katrina coverage and blogging.