Published in the Charlotte Observer, September 20, 2005
Blacks and whites: We exist but do we co-exist with one another?
George Bush doesn’t care about black people. Kayne West said it, and that makes it true. And therein lies the problem. While white people were trying to figure out who Kayne West is, black people were nodding in agreement. Hurricane Katrina, in its massive destruction and color-blind fury, cast one long truth on race relations in America: Blacks and whites live in separate worlds.
I first noticed it when R&B singer Aaliyah died. Mainstream journalists were writing short, tragic obits about a "rising star" while black journalists mourned "R&B royalty". The schism was stark and undeniable. In entertainment and in life, whites and blacks live in two separate places. So is this a problem?
It wasn’t until recently. We aren’t separated by Jim Crow anymore, so this isn’t a legal separation. Interracial couples and friends are more common, so it isn’t a socially mandated separation. I submit that Blacks and whites exist in parallel universes because we like it that way. It is only when Mother Nature forces us together that our universes collide, and we're forced to look each other in the eyes.
The fact is, we like different music, and we watch different television shows. Sure, I occasionally watch "Will & Grace" – it's funny. But when I want to see people who look like me, in situations I can relate to, I watch "Girlfriends" on "black night" on UPN. If I polled the white people I consider friends, they wouldn't know what "black night is", much less that there is a show called "Girlfriends". I have a certain fascination with Kelly Clarkson and Maroon 5. I think it's because they are so different from the music I usually listen to – plus they are catchy. But I don’t buy white music – I listen to it on the radio or download it. I save my precious purchasing power for artists who need my support; mainstream white artists don't usually qualify. (There was that whole Alanis Morrisette thing, but I'm over it now.)
In any event, I don’t consider myself a racist. I don't consider George Bush a racist. But I, like the president, don't take note of the needs, interests or music of the members of other races. It's not racism, but willful indifference and genuine disinterest. And it's harmless. At least, it was until Hurricane Katrina.
The invisible, working people
The lessons about Hurricane Katrina are not about racism, perhaps not even about class. They are about ignorance and indifference. Some people died in that storm because they would not leave. Many, many more died because they could not leave. And I'm not referring to the homeless and forgotten, but to the invisible, working, able-bodied people who were left behind. The men, women and children who spend every day being ignored by more affluent members of society. The human beings who live in our country, work every day and make just enough money to feed, clothe and house themselves, but not quite enough to get "ahead". I'm talking about people who could not escape the storm, just as they could not escape their poverty. The hurricane's fury picked up their lives, shook them and laid them out for the world to see. It wasn't pretty.
The hurricane was devastating but the lives of many of its victims before the hurricane were almost equally tragic. Barbara Bush implied that living in Houston's Astrodome was an improvement on their lives. I wouldn't take it quite so far, but the honest truth is, the victims may have more of a head start on life now than they did before the storm.
Racism, or indifference?
It's unfair to say George Bush is a racist; few of us know him well enough to say for sure. But it is fair to say that many of Hurricane Katrina's victims were victims of his indifference long before the storm. But it's not exactly racism that causes us to live in the same country but on two separate planets. It's a self-imposed segregation that causes us to exist, but not co-exist.
Many times there are no consequences to our segregated society. But this time, just this once, segregation killed people. And I would venture to say it will continue on its murderous rampage, as New Orleans is rebuilt – until we start noticing one another. It would be appropriate for Katrina to bring us together as a nation, for us all to "just get along". But more than likely, we will pick up the pieces, and put them back exactly where they were – until we need each other again.