- The Washington Times - Monday, September 5, 2005

In polite dinner conversation, religion and politics are taboo. But if you really want to set someone’s stomach to boiling, mention the topic of racism in America.

Racism and its Siamese sister, classism, are simply not acceptable issues to discuss in mixed company, let alone to mass audiences. Black or white, we prefer to tiptoe around the testy topic for fear of offending the “other,” the oppressed or the oppressor.

Now is not the time for timid niceties. Now is the time when “the best of us must help the rest of us,” as the Rev. Al Sharpton said.

First, we must honestly face what we try too hard to hide.

Witness what happened to rapper Kayne West during NBC’s fundraising telecast for Hurricane Katrina victims. He created a firestorm of gasps and denials when he went off script and said that “[President] George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”

Too harsh?

Alabama-born Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said: “Nobody, especially the president, would have left people unattended on the basis of race.”

As unbelievable as it may seem, Miss Rice will never be able to convince folks who now see her as the symbolic face of successful blacks leaving brethren behind.

As evidence, I received an e-mail making the rounds that asked every black person in America to immediately go out and purchase two copies of Mr. West’s CD to show appreciation for the “young brother’s courage.”

Mr. West simply said aloud what far too many outraged black Americans have whispered to one another after it took Mr. Bush and his “Badministration,” as one of numerous e-mailers wrote, a full week to provide basic necessities to the predominantly black and poor storm victims in New Orleans. These were the same government officials, they furiously note, who managed to get aid to unsuspecting tsunami victims around the globe in less than two days.

“If a tragedy of this magnitude had occurred in the Palm Beach area or any other resort, I do not believe the response would have been so delayed,” said the Rev. Donald Eugene Braxton, pastor of the historic Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Yesterday, members of his Northwest congregation were busy collecting diapers, antacids, clothing, toiletries, school supplies and undergarments for distribution on the Gulf Coast.

Is it any wonder that these citizens, like the working poor all across America, felt abandoned long before a powerful storm blew off the cover of their ignored and invisible lives?

Now these Americans feel abused by their own government and by the press that concentrated on the despicable minority of “looters.” The black Internet grapevine was ablaze last week, for instance, with one troubling and discriminatory press item that depicted two photographs of hurricane victims wading in water in what appeared to be the same location. Each was carrying a loaf of bread from a nearby grocery store. However, in one caption the black man was characterized as “looting,” while in the other, the white woman was characterized as “finding” her goods.

Blacks such as Pamela Cousins of Prince George’s County were also livid about the press dubbing predominantly black hurricane victims “refugees.”

She was so incensed that she looked up the term in the dictionary to find it means “people voluntarily running from war, religious persecution or government oppression.”

Barely containing his rage during a belated Congressional Black Caucus press conference on Friday, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, Maryland Democrat, said “these are not refugees; these are American citizens,” to give public voice to the offense and insensitivity the denigrating moniker represented to black Americans.

Blacks were livid and worried that “refugee” conjured an image that set apart the evacuees and could marginalize their circumstances and need for help.

Thank goodness that the vast majority of private citizens, churches and nonprofit groups see this horrific, historic calamity through colorblind lenses. Here we find hope for America.

Still, after characterizing the unprecedented human degradation he witnessed in the New Orleans arena as “the hull of a slave ship,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson added that “the issue of race as a factor will not go away.” Why? Because black Americans are angry. They are not just angry at an unresponsive government that forced a quarter of a million poor black residents of New Orleans to wallow in their own feces. They are angry at a society that they don’t trust to treat them equal even in the face of disaster, destruction and death.

Blacks are so distrustful of their government that some New Orleans evacuees are circulating the conspiracy theory that their poor neighborhoods were flooded deliberately to keep rich areas such as the French Quarter and the Garden District dry. The anger rose in black Americans the way the floodwaters from Hurricane Katrina rose in the 9th District of New Orleans. Yet, unlike the evacuees, who were displaced and had nowhere to go, a mobilized black America is finding a place to put that understandable anger into action.

While it was welcome to witness whites and blacks helping each other, black Americans, like those at Metropolitan AME Church, are realizing that it is their greater responsibility and task to provide assistance to the masses of displaced Gulf Coast victims.

“To whom much is given, much is required,” is the new mantra making the Internet rounds as scores of black Americans sound the call from anger to action.

One such fundraiser named after this biblical scripture scheduled last night at the downtown jazz club H.R. was sponsored by the law offices of Donald Temple in conjunction with radio D.J. Tom Joyner’s efforts (www.blackamericaweb.com).

Hurricane Katrina’s devastating aftermath undoubtedly provided a much-needed global wake-up call with its demonstrative exposure of what the foreign press dubbed “Third World America.”

It also provided a poignant wake-up call to black Americans who might think they have “made it.”

The long-term loss wrought by Hurricane Katrina will be even greater if those difficult issues of race and class that surfaced during these dark, angry days are swept up and pushed back into Lake Pontchartrain along with the storm’s debris.

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