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Friday, September 02, 2005
 
Putting "Race and Class" in Context

I keep hearing various folks in the post-Katrina media barrage talking about "race and class," and how they have influenced who has borne the brunt of this disaster.

On one hand, I'm cheered that, at long last, the gatekeepers of our public discourse have seen fit to address the issue of poverty. The same bunch who couldn't pause for a moment's breath in their last few weeks of their hideously absurd coverage of rich, white, missing Natalee Holloway (during a war, no less) are actually talking about the tragedy of poverty and the inhumanity of the stark inequality that so often lies beneath the visible surface of this "richest country in the world."

On the other hand, I want to tell them to shut the fuck up.

It's almost as if they're under some kind of compulsion to come to the wrong conclusions. Here's a story that writes itself--they merely need to stand next to it and let the facts osmose through them and it's the very soul of journalism--and they just can't let it happen without screwing it up.

What's wrong with the phrase "race and class"? Aren't the people trapped in the intensifying chaos and devastation of New Orleans, the people dying from lack of water and medical attention, aren't they largely poor and black?

The fact that Katrina has brought class out in the open is hugely beneficial and long overdue. There are a lot of things we can do to help raise up all Americans, that will help people now and in the future. Maybe now, forlorn as that hope might be, we as a country can start down the road of full citizenship and dignity for all of us.

But if you're going to talk about race, then you'd better be ready to talk about the legacy of slavery, the KKK, Jim Crow, and the effects of generations of institutionalized and informal discrimination. You'd better be ready to talk about how the families of most blacks in this country started out with nothing and have since been blocked again and again from accumulating more by the pure blind hatred of (some) whites, very often with the acquiescence and active participation of government. You'd better be ready to talk about how racism is still a powerful, living force in America today.

You can't just wink at the issue. You can't use just the word "race" and assume everyone knows what you're talking about, because a lot of people don’t or won’t admit it. They'll just go and paint it with their own happy interpretations of history where there's nothing to regret, nothing to redress. They’ll conclude that these people were too lazy or stupid to get out of town, even after the mayor declared a mandatory evacuation. They’ll conclude that these people had the option to save money for emergencies but simply didn’t because they're irresponsible. (You know, because they're black.)

Poverty--class--is the only immediate reason these people they didn't have the means to leave the city following the "mandatory" evacuation, and it would have applied equally to anyone regardless of color. In this context--in the context of New Orleans, of Katrina, and of the horrifying suffering of the people left behind to suffer and die--in this context, race is only relevant if it explains why they were poor to begin with. If you mention race but do not talk explicitly about why it's connected to poverty, then people are going to come to their own conclusions as to why you brought it up, and some of them are going to come up with some very ugly answers.