This Is Why We’re Not Post-Racist

So for those who think New Orleans was about class, not race, I would call your attention to two articles. The first is the ‘op-ed that never was’ by Rick Perlstein:

My friend says: “There were rumors that there were basically gangs of blacks walking up and down the main drag in town harassing business owners.” The current line is that “some of them weren’t even evacuees, they were just fake evacuees trying to stir up trouble and riot, because we all know that’s what they want to do.”

He talked to local police, who report no problems: just lost, confused families, in desperate need of help.

Yet “one of the most ridiculous rumors that has gone around is that ‘the Civic Center is nothing but inmates. It’s where they put all the criminals.'”

I immediately got that uncanny feeling: where had I heard things like this before?

The answer is: in my historical research about racial tensions forty years ago. I’m writing a book against the backlash against liberalism and civil rights in the 1960s. One of the things I’ve studied is race riots. John Schmidhauser, a former congressman from rural Iowa, told me about the time, in the summer of 1966, he held a question and answer session with constituents. Violence had broken out in the Chicago ghetto, and one of the farmers asked his congressman about an insistent rumor:

“Are they going to come out here on motorcycles?”

It’s a funny image, a farmer quaking at the vision of black looters invading the cornfields of Iowa. But it’s also awfully serious. The key word here is “they.” It’s a fact of life: in times of social stress when solid information is scarce, rumors fill the vacuum. Rumors are evidence of panic. The rumors only fuel further panic. The result, especially when the rumors involved are racial, can be a deadly stew of paranoia.

He then describes just how deadly that “stew of paranoia” can be. Then there’s this story about public hearings to decide where to house evacuees from New Orleans:

“The only thing we see about these people on the news is what happened in the Superdome,” said Philip Devall, 42, a white resident of Greensburg, at a recent meeting of the parish government. “They’re rapists and thugs and murderers. I’m telling you, half of them have criminal records. I’ve worked all my life to have what I have. I can’t lose it, and I can’t stand guard 24 hours a day.”

About 2,000 evacuees have been staying with friends and family in the parish since Hurricane Katrina, and police officials here say that crime related to the newcomers has been virtually nonexistent. But many residents say that fear is the driving force behind their opposition.

“I want to know how many sex offenders they’re going to move in next to me,” said Marci Kent, 36, also a white resident of Greensburg, at the meeting. “And I got daughters, too.”

When one white man expressed concern at the meeting over possibly losing his valuables to lawless evacuees, a black woman turned around and angrily pointed a finger at him. “We work hard for what we got, too,” she said. “But these people need a place to stay.”….

At a public meeting on Tuesday night, Arise Hitchen, 45, a black resident of Greensburg, said that her family was willing to donate 30 acres of land for the placement of trailers but expressed concern that she might not get the chance because of her neighbors’ attitudes.

“Living here, I expected this, but I thought people would eventually give in,” Ms. Hitchen said. “It’s sad to hear people be this negative. This could easily be us tomorrow.”

Those people are rapists and thieves. How is this ‘post-racist?’ It’s not; it’s just racist.

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