Racism: A Temporary Disturbance?

"It's politics man and they are playing games and they are spinning it. They are out there spinning for the cameras... The government is feeding the people a line of bull." —Ray Nagin, Mayor of New Orleans

All of a sudden I am to take with credibility the media's newfound sense of empathy when just weeks ago black victims of Hurricane Katrina were being depicted as a bunch of looting ruffians. Initially, the mainstream media was nowhere near as horrified as it is now and neither was a majority of the public. However, that could be because audiences were being told by their president that what happened was a mere "temporary disturbance," a statement largely echoed by the media. Unless people had access to independent media, the impression we were getting was mild. But then something happened over the course of the week to make Katrina dominate every headline. Not that I disapprove of the media's sudden awareness, but at the same time I observe how the story is now being framed and what the disaster has been reduced to—a bureaucratic mistake. The mainstream media is profiting hugely by pouring as much eye candy as possible into our living rooms, but how is the mess being explained exactly? Is it all really to be blamed on bureaucratic miscommunication?

Since 9-11, our government has supposedly been restructuring its system to react more quickly and respond more adequately in times of crisis—if so much as just the color-alert changes, more officers are added to the streets and more security checks are performed. So what happened when Katrina hit? Am I to believe that the Department of Homeland Security does not have the resources to deal with natural disasters, but it does for a terrorist attack? Does that make any logical sense? An attack is an attack—when a massive number of people are afflicted by one, natural or man-made, they all require the same urgent attention and care.

Perhaps only during times of national crisis, when the country is forced to reorder its priorities, do citizens discover the degree of their citizenship, particularly minorities. After 9-11 it was repeated over and over by political and media pundits that we were all Americans, and as if to help corroborate the lie, flags suddenly came out of hibernation and took over every street block in America. But Muslims soon discovered to their dismay that what pundits said and how we were actually treated were two separate things. Just how American we really are was revealed when Congress passed into law a bill that made every Muslim suspect and anointed it with the words "Patriot Act," a title as disingenuous as many of the flags that waved from corner to corner. We discovered just how American we are when national security stipulated that we no longer had any rights and federal agents were given permission to infiltrate our mosques, tap our phone lines, barge into our homes and separate us from our loved ones. Muslims were left languishing in prisons for months without being told why they were being held, but knowing that being Muslim had something to do with it. How could the government explain its ugly behavior with any justifiable words other than masking it with the pretty label, "Patriot Act"?

When Hurricane Katrina hit, the media admitted in a moment of weakness that African-Americans were nothing more than refugees in this country. They were depicted as looters and in the President's view, their tragedy a temporary disturbance. But it became complicated when the "refugees" began pouring into neighboring states; when in a fit of tearful rage, the Mayor of New Orleans demanded over public airwaves that the feds "get their asses moving"; when he wondered aloud how a nation that that could immediately allocate its resources for war after 9-11, was fumbling to allocate adequate resources now; when the feelings of betrayal and rage engulfing the hearts of many African Americans threatened to burst and destroy the national unity that the government and its fourth branch have been working so hard to convince us of post 9-11.

The President briefly addressed the problem of racism in the speech he delivered from New Orleans. He devoted an entire four sentences to a deep-rooted problem that in his words spans generations: "This poverty has roots in generations of segregation and discrimination that closed many doors of opportunity. As we clear away the debris of a hurricane, let us also clear away the legacy of inequality. Let us deliver new hope to communities that were suffering before the storm. As we rebuild homes and businesses, we will renew our promise as a land of equality and decency.''

How seriously are we to take his commitment to equality and decency? This coming from the same presidency that gave us Guantanamo Bay. The same presidency that introduced an act making it law to treat American Muslims guilty until proven innocent. It was his administration that disobeyed a court order to release the pictures of Iraqi detainees sexually tortured by American troops. This is the same President who has spoken at Bob Jones University, supported the flying of the confederate flag in South Carolina, and whose election campaign used race as a means to undermine Senator John McCain, claiming he fathered a black child.

The hypocritical few lines he did devote to the issue of race were quickly drowned out by talk of a "Gulf Opportunity Zone" and several initiatives that essentially hand over reconstruction efforts to private companies. Katrina provided yet another opportunity for this administration to give away no-bid contracts to Halliburton and Bechtel and provide further tax cuts to corporations. He also suspended the Davis-Bacon Act, which means that companies accepting federal relief money can now pay workers below the prevailing wage. By paving the way for corporate messiahs, the President plans to save the people of New Orleans the same way he saved the people of Iraq.

As for the media, it continues to largely portray the Katrina disaster as a product of mishandling, a tragic error that could have just as well occurred in any other part of the country—choosing to downplay the role of racism and instead blaming the apathetic reaction of this country on clumsy bureaucrats and FEMA's Mike Brown. The public can now sympathize with the tragedy right on media cue and go to sleep content that what happened was namely due to bureaucratic negligence—rather than a deep-rooted racism that has been the hallmark of this country's torrid history with itself and the world.


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