Another Rodney King Moment?

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Another Rodney King Moment?

When I read this the first thing that popped into my head was "Rodney King."
Twenty-two percent of all those polled say a "major reason" the response was slow was that it was not a priority because the people affected were mostly African-American. However, 47 percent of non-whites believe race was a major reason, while only 13 percent of whites believe it. And 29 percent of all those polled and 53 percent of non-whites say a major reason was that the people affected were mostly poor. (Only 20 percent of whites feel that way.)
Yet another significant cultural moment that highlights just how differently blacks and whites in America perceive the relationship between race, class and power. It supports my belief that most whites neither "see" or "get" it mostly due to limited exposure to people who aren't just like themselves.

Watching all the post-Katrina hurricane coverage has been like watching people who I actually know suffer tremendous, unimaginable loss. I don't have nearly the distance that most white Americans do from the lives of black Americans. For the past seven years I have always been a "multiple minority" in mostly black, poor-to-middle class DC neighborhoods-- I'm a white, Jewish lesbian. I don't think any of this earns me anything special, I certainly don't wear it as a badge of enlightenment or anything, but I do think I have a different perspective from the vast majority of other white people; I'm hyper aware of what it's like to stand out as an "other" in a day-to-day way. I know what it's like to feel like I'm trespassing in places where I, technically, don't belong. Frankly, there is no place I could go where I would only be surrounded by people who, at least superficially, are just like me.

Today, like many, I'm thinking about both 9/11 and the aftermath of Katrina. Both are tragedies, of different stripes, but they reveal some of the fundamental differences in understanding of how "others" live. It puts a spotlight on America's complicated intersection of race and class that is deeply rooted in a sometimes inspiring, mostly ugly, history. Let's hope that we are able to turn this into a uniting momement instead of the ususual "blame game"-- blaming those in poverty for being poor and having few resources and pretending that they became that way in a vacuum, that it is entirely their fault.

I think of most people as products of their ancestral history and that our lives either represent a chapter similar to the one before or a divergence. None of us can escape who we are by denying where come from without paying a very high price. I can only hope that America stops trying to distance itself from its recent history of institutional discrimination and can begin to recognize that the past isn't buried nearly as deeply as we'd like it to be.

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