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The Lessons of New Orleans

What was it that William Faulkner reminded us about the past never being dead and buried, and that indeed it is not even past?
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Last Friday, I wrote “New Orleans”. No-one wants the opening sentence of “New Orleans” to be untrue more deeply than I. I am grateful that it has not been substantiated, and willingly re-tract that sentence.

Some readers have responded to “New Orleans” by sharing my sadness at all that Katrina has exposed. Others see “New Orleans” as proof that I am a “divider”.

In truth, I am a Harvard-trained lawyer who, by any measure, has had a successful and rewarding life. I was reared, however, to believe that focusing solely on the circumstances of one’s own life is not enough. Hence, I have spoken and written extensively in an attempt to awaken the conscience of the American people; to cause them to see that millions upon millions of black Americans were drowning…..right here in America – long before Katrina - and few were doing anything to save them. Drowning in substandard schools. Drowning in neighborhoods in which there are no jobs. Drowning without health care. Drowning from red-lining. Drowning, drowning, drowning in a society in which, impassioned protestations to the contrary, race has always and continues to matter.

What the world has witnessed in New Orleans over the past week is just the tip of a menacing American iceberg that has its origins in our unique, unspoken history. Consider, for example, that African-Americans commit 12% of the nation’s non-violent drug offenses, but make up 75% of prison admissions for such crimes. As a result of this and other factors, one half of America’s 2 million prisoners today are black.

The future of America’s blacks is warehoused in America’s prisons.

How could that be?

What are the causes of this?

What is the connection between this heart-rending circumstance and what we are witnessing in New Orleans?

Has the time not come to talk openly and honestly about the metastasizing cancer on the soul of our nation?

Further, disproportionately, black Americans languish in private for-profit prisons producing wealth for American investors. This is America’s modern slavery – inhumane and un-remarked.

Save for a few, who are locked in deep and often well-rewarded denial, the role of race in America continues to be a defining preoccupation of virtually all African-Americans.

How could it be otherwise?

Nearly a century and a half after the Emancipation Proclamation, the descendents of slaves, whose cruelly coerced exertions made America a wealthy and powerful nation, are told that “slavery and Jim Crow were long ago and we must now move on”.

What was it that William Faulkner reminded us about the past never being dead and buried, and that indeed it is not even past? Yet, White America recoils at the mere suggestion that the time has come for an honest appraisal of the ongoing impact of America’s past on the painful racial realities that confront us today.

Having been here since 1619, African-Americans can only arguably be said to have been “granted” full citizenship in America with the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

How many Americans understand the differential economic and psychological implications of this for all Americans – black and white?

There are millions and millions of blacks who lead, today in America, lives marked by the grinding, dehumanizing poverty that Katrina exposed in New Orleans. They are the living, awful harvest of American slavery and the Jim Crow century that followed it. They are the bruised fruit of centuries of government-enforced exclusion based on race that lasted until 1965. They mirror America’s death of conscience. And this is America’s disgrace.

“New Orleans” was a plea from the heart. Long ago white America stopped talking to black America about what black America needed to talk about. Indeed, white America long ago stopped talking about what all of America needs badly to talk about – race, and the origins and causes, exceptions notwithstanding, of intergenerational white wealth and black poverty in America.

Perhaps now, we can begin to talk. Honestly for once. For the good of us all.

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