[promoted by BooMan]

America is haunted by the ghost of its racist past. The vast majority of Americans today are not racists and are justifiably upset if they are accused of racism.

Yet, despite the absence of racists, racism persists.  Blacks earn less than whites–and not just because of poorer education. I’m talking about blacks and whites doing the same jobs, with the same level of qualifications. Adding insult to injury, white people’s money goes farther. They get loans more easily, get mortgages and buy houses more easily, live in neighborhoods where retail prices are lower, etc. Middle class blacks have far less in savings than middle class whites with the same income levels.

On another front, blacks use drugs at the same rate as whites, but get arrested far more often. Of those arrested, blacks go to trial more often. Of those who go to trial, blacks are sentenced more often. At every step of the criminal justice process, blacks are treated more harshly, and are given less chance at rehabilitation, instead of punishment.  As an end result, blacks have lost the right to vote for felony convictions at rate 7 times that of whites. In fact, if there were no felony disfranchisement, Al Gore would have won Florida in 2000 by thousands of votes–despite everything done to steal the election.

I could go on and on, or I could dress this up with specific figures and links. I’ve done that in past. But I don’t think I need to do that here and now. We all know these things are true.  

The point is not in the details here, but in the pattern–the pattern of racism without racists, the pattern of racist results without overtly racist intentions.  This pattern persists in part because most people are unaware of it–and Katrina has suddenly made them aware, if only dimly, only partially, nonetheless, it has made them aware.

The cover for this form of racism is the invocation of equality, used as a cover for unequal treatment.  “Equal opportunity, not equal outcomes,” is a favorite way of expressing this.  But old-fashioned racism pretended to equality as well. “Separate, But Equal” was the way that Plessy vs. Furgeson expressed it.  It was the official legal credo of segregation.  It pretended to be egalitarian. It was a lie. So, too, is “Equal opportunity, not equal outcomes,” as seen in the pattern described above.

The fundamental logic of the two systems is the same. If one believed in “Separate, But Equal,” believed it was true in fact as well as right in principal, then it followed that all black failure was the fault of blacks themselves. Likewise, if one believes in “Equal Opportunity, Not Equal Results,” believes it is true in fact as well as right in principal, then it follows that all black failure is the fault of blacks themselves.

People have a tremendous capacity for self-deception–even when it directly harms them.  Segregation survived for seven decades as the law of the land in part because blacks accepted it, and accepted leaders engaged in self-deception, they accepted the harms they experienced in everyday life (after all, it was preferrable to getting themselve killed for being “uppity”), until a credible movement to change things finally gained critical mass.

If black Americans had some complicity in their own subjugation (and that’s the “beauty” of subjugation, it gets inside the head, inside the very souls of those it subjugates, there is nothing at all unique to the African-American experience in this regard) then surely there is no special sting in noting that white Americans have some complicity in the ongoing racism of today.  The difficulty lies in getting this idea across without rousing vigorous denials, centered in people’s honest conscious intentions.

Katrina’s aftermath has given us an opening. It has allowed thousands, perhaps millions of white Americans to act individually and collectively to help victims of Katrina, large numbers of whom are black. They have put into action values which are all to seldom connected with any real impact on the world. They have in a sense realized their own non-racism, if not anti-racism.  And this makes it easier to talk about race openly, because we can acknowledge that, and say, quite honestly, “We know that you are not consciously racist. We can see that in how you have responded to Katrina.”  And we will not be the least bit false or condescending in saying this. We will simply be acknowledging the truth.

At the same time, they themselves have witnessed the undeniable neglect, and unequal treatment of the worst-off black victims of Katrina.  They don’t have to be given sets of abstract facts and figures to translate into something concrete they can relate to. They have seen it for themselves with their own eyes.

And so this is a teachable moment.  It is a time that allows for an honest discussion about how racism, covered in denial, is still alive in America today–hurting all of us by dividing our nation, even though it obviously hurts black people much deeply and directly. And more than that, it allows for an honest discussion about what to do to break through that denial and eradicate that racism, once and for all. So that, in the words of Langston Hughes

    “America was never America to me,
    And yet I swear this oath- America will be!”
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