Monday, August 24, 2015

Black Pain -- White Distance: What Katrina taught me about myself.

The New Orleans Superdome surrounded by flooded streets.
This article makes clear the relationship between the flood in the aftermath of Katrina and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. Its thesis is that African Americans were forcefully reminded that white America was largely unconcerned about their suffering. Their lives did not matter, in so many words, although Kanye West expressed at the time by saying that "George Bush does not care about Black people."

Those days brought home to me all the ways that I used to separate myself from the suffering of black people: all the mental tricks, all the ways that I turned away, all my denying and distancing habits.

This is what I preached on September 18, 2005:

Let’s start here. I suspect  that when we think about the people of New Orleans, especially the black and the poor, it takes courage to imagine ourselves in their present situation.  Imagine watching your home flooded, and that you lose almost everything you own.  Imagine making your way through the flooded streets to public stadium, where you spend days and nights, surrounded by strangers, in conditions of anarchy, with nobody in charge, nobody to keep you safe.  Imagine the fear of losing track of your children in a crowd, of becoming separated from everyone you know.  Imagine standing in a line for 24 hours waiting for a rumored bus to come, unsure as to whether you should give up your place in line to go to the bathroom. Imagine watching the patients and staff of Tulane University being evacuated, while the patients of the public hospital were told to wait.  Imagine being turned back by armed policemen when you try to walk across a highway bridge toward dry land.  Imagine coming the suspicion that your government had abandoned you and was leaving you to die, just as the government had to hundreds of black men during the floods during the 20’s. 

It is terrifying to try to imagine yourself, you, your spouse, your children, those children we so lovingly send out of here on Sunday morning, your mother, your father helpless and infirm.

I can hardly grasp such terror and such pain.  

Here is my confession.  

It is calming to think that those people are somehow more used to suffering, that they are tougher than we are, less sensitive, that somehow the experiences that they have gone through in these past three weeks have not hurt them the way that they would hurt us. I  can pity them; I  can want to have mercy upon them, I want to help them, but it very  painful to imagine myself in their situation.  To calm my panic, and to soothe my pain, I entertain the racist thought that somehow they are different than me. I do not think that I am alone in this.

 And because we cannot, we will not, fully imagine ourselves in their situation, we find their anger unfathomable.  Kanye West, a popular recording artist, says that he thinks George Bush does not care about black people.  Oh me O My.  People are shocked.  How could he think that?  If our moral imaginations were not stunted by the effects of racism, No, let me say it this way, if our moral imaginations were not tranquillized by the narcotic of racism, we might understand how such a conclusion would make perfect sense to him.

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