Monday, March 23, 2009

Black and White? Not so much...

I have been avoiding this commentary for the entire history of this blog. It’s one of those topics I have continually wrestled with because I’m really not sure if I have anything constructive to add to the dialogue. By nature, this blog is pretty accusatory and at times vitriolic…so be it…it is the nature of the beast. So I’ve debated whether or not this platform is the proper place to broach this particular subject. After having reflected on some of my recent posts regarding E-maelstrom…particularly this one…..I’ve decided it would behoove me to pull the trigger on this taboo of taboo subjects.

I think I am obliged to start by explaining who I am and why I see things the way I do.

I am white, of Irish descent (dad’s side…not sure what mom’s side is)….hillbilly to be specific. I grew up in an incredibly racist environment. It was an interesting type of racism though…because it was kind of like an inactive virus. 98% of the people around me were white, we had almost no African-Americans, Asians, Latinos, or any other races around us for miles. The few folks of color who were around, were treated very poorly and looking back, it saddens me to think of the prejudices they must have endured.

I left that environment and went on to get a degree in anthropology. I was always a little different and much more tolerant than my peers, growing up in the hills....but I still had a lot of ingrained prejudices which I carried with me to college.

Having chosen to study social science, anthropology no less, I submerged myself in the study of human culture, religion, behavior, sexuality, ritual, etc. That path shifted my consciousness and global perspective in magnificent ways. I often look back on my youth and experience moments of compunction over the way I spoke and even treated people….but I suppose we all have those moments…with perhaps the exception of Dick Cheney and Karl Rove.

Ok, that’s my background, just so you know who is preaching here.

After 20 full years of studying human behavior, human culture, and evolutionary disciplines, I have come to the conclusion that “race” as we define it….is actually a myth. I could take you down the physiological path of my theory (genotypes to phenotypes), but I don’t think anyone really wants to hear that….suffice to say I would make the argument that speciation is actually a myth as well. Here I will stick to the cerebral interpretation of my theory.

I think more often than not, in the current psyche of the average American, we confuse the semantics of “race” with “culture”.

A good example of this was sometime last year, when the chief of police in Chalmette said they were going to stop everyone with “Chee Wee hairstyles, white T shirts, and baggy pants.” The racism charges immediately followed….even on a national level. I’m not saying the man is or is not a racist, I don’t know….but if you actually look at what he said, he was identifying culture, not race. It was true, and still is, that a disproportionate number of people committing crimes in our city, fit that profile….and that profile did not denote race, it denoted style...which is a product of culture that transcends race. I think it was a very stupid thing for him to say politically, but regardless, what he was denoting was culture, not race. I bring this up because I think it is incredibly important to make a distinction between the two, and more often than not, that distinction isn't qualified.

I also think much of the current turmoil we are witnessing within City Hall is truly a debate of culture…not race. In some cases I think people are purposely using this confusion to their advantage, i.e. Ray Nagin.

Someone once said “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” We witnessed that first hand on a national level for the past 8 years. In our case (New Orleans) I would say, quite often, racism could supplant patriotism in that adage.

If there is a cogent and constructive point to this diatribe I offer it here:

This city is crippled. It is not crippled by Katrina or the threat of hurricanes….we can overcome that. It is not crippled by a lack of economic development….we can overcome that too. It is not crippled by lawmakers in Baton Rouge….we generate more money than them and we can overcome that as well. It’s not even crippled by it’s education system…I believe we can overcome that and in fact have made great strides in recent years to do so.

This city is crippled by its bombastic perception of race. It’s not actually racism….it’s the perception of race and the confusion created by those invoking racial sentiments.

I think every city in this nation deals with issues of “race” in some form or another…it’s just that in New Orleans….it tends to pervade and eventually destroy everything we do.

Why? Why is that?

Is there truly a grand conspiracy by some group of people, based on their skin color, to gain control of this city’s political process by ousting any other group of people whose skin color doesn’t match theirs? Black, White, Asian, etc?

I believe the answer is no….on all accounts. And I mean all accounts…so don’t extract that question and comment that Tracie Washington and crew are in that number…because I don’t believe that is their true motivation.

I do believe, however, that there are cultural cliques within this city that wield enormous power. I believe those cliques use the perception of race to manipulate, polarize, confuse, and inflame people to achieve their political, financial, and egomaniacal goals. I believe there is a CULTURE of corruption within this city which has rotted everything from our education system to our public transit system to our public housing to our technology systems…..essentially everything that has a public budget behind it. I believe that culture of corruption is race neutral, but the people ingrained in this culture want you to believe race is the motivating factor behind every action within our government.

The bigger the budget, the bigger the corruption….case in point, the pre-K, NOPS budget which topped out as the largest in the state at over 500 million. The layers of corruption within that school system were legendary, from the lowest levels to the highest. The result was the worst public school system in the nation. The number of public officials and private enterprises, white and black, who were grafting money out of that system, at the expense of the children within it, was truly sickening. To make matters worse, many of these thieves portrayed themselves as champions of the children while methodically siphoning off as much cash from the system as they could.

When faced with accusations of corruption and theft in the documentary, Left Behind, former school board member, Ellenese Brook Simms responded, “I’ve been black my whole life…these are my children…what is your motivation…what are you after?” She went on to accuse Jackie Clarkson of being “racist” because she was backing another candidate for her position on the school board.

Within a year of that interview, she was indicted for accepting kickbacks for favoring a specific software package being offered by Mos Jefferson, former congressman Bill Jefferson’s brother. She plead guilty to the charges.

There were many other crimes she committed while seated on the board which will probably never come to light…when confronted with her transgressions, her immediate response was to portray her accusers of racism.

Was Clarkson’s support of another candidate (Lourdes Moran of Honduran heritage) to run against Simms motivated simply because Simms was African-American? Or was it because she knew Ellenese was corrupt? I think, perhaps, the track record now speaks for itself.

But here we are again….and now the target is Stacy Head. Head has been instrumental in routing out issues regarding trash contracts, and in case you didn’t know this…..MIS/Tech contracts including the crime cameras. Now that these issues are being brought to the public’s attention, she’s suddenly being charged with racist motivations.

Veronica White, Tracie Washington, and Ray Nagin would have us believe that Head has spent the last three years of her life digging into contracts and trying to get a hold on city expenditures for the sheer motivation of ill will towards black people. They would have us believe that Stacy Head’s primary motivating factor in life is to expunge New Orleans' government of any black person which may hold office.

Never mind that White has been unable to produce any semblance of an audited report on our city sanitation contracts….which is her job. Never mind that our Inspector General’s office released a painstaking report which detailed massive corruption within Nagin’s technology office….with the lynchpin (Meffert) being as white as the driven snow. Never mind that the majority of the contract and financial benefactors of Nagin’s 8 years were white republicans, i.e., HSOA/Benetech. Cipher, LSI, Imagine & shell companies.

No don’t pay attention to the facts….this is a “racist” conspiracy.

I bet there is a group of old and young, white aristocrats who meet every full moon in the backyard of an uptown mansion on St. Charles street. There, they burn effigies of black politicians and dance naked around a fire, while chanting racial slurs and worshipping a 30-foot tall, ivory (of course) statue of Stacy Head.

No, not really....

That kind of stuff happens on the North Shore, because there are some true freaks up there.

No, not really....

That kind of stuff happens in Baton Rouge because they're so consumed with religiosity and moral confusion they have to act out their frustrations in deviant, orgiastic, rituals.

Maybe? Sounds plausible to me.

Sarcasm aside, my hope in this whole scandal….E-maelstrom, Crime Cameras, and everything else that is transpiring….is that justice is served blindly and the public sees clearly that this is truly about corruption. It’s about a culture of corruption which transcends race or the notion of race. The only motivating color in this scandal is green. Oh how I hope, we as a city, come to Buddha on this…I believe our future is contingent upon this realization.


KamaAina has left a new comment on your post "Black and White? Not so much...":

Jack Strain, of "Chee Wee hairdo" fame (or at least notoriety), is the sheriff of St. Tammany Parish, not Chalmette.

Then again, half of St. Bernard Parish (literally) seems to have resettled over there...

Update: My somewhat irate mother informed me that I am German on her side. She also mentioned Bohemian, but I'm not sure I can claim that as a nationality...Oh what the hell, its sounds cool. I would say above all....I am hillbilly, which for all it's faults, I am rather proud of.


Anonymous said...

I curtsey to you Darlin' for making these statements on the issues we currently face here in New Orleans and the Nation.

In my Blog I have tried to touch on the same concept, but you have given me hope that my thoughts about Culture and yours jive to a great extent. And maybe I'll go ahead and run with it. (so many drafts on this issue to finish)

Great piece. Namaste

Anonymous said...

It seems you both suffer from White Guilt. The fact that you wax on about your educational heritage announces loudly that you fear starting an honest conversation about race and it's related issues for fear that you may be labeled a racist.

Bill Cosby speaks honestly about the problem without fear of being called a racist. We need more like him.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing this Dambala. You've given me some inspiration to delve into the subject on my blog. I've been so exhausted from the soap opera drama that is local politics playing out in the daily news. But, as someone said in the early pre-k days, 'there's no more sitting on the fence here post-Katrina new orleans. You're either working for the recovery of the city or you're not.' something like that...

If we fail, I wouldn't want to look back on this and know there was more that I could have said or done to make a different outcome. In the midst of so much toxicity, its hard to remember the butterfly effect. But it's real.

Okay, now that I've used the words 'butterfly' and 'inspiration' in the same commentary, I'm out!

Anonymous said...

Bravo! Bravo! Bravo! I blogged on this issue, but not nearly so elegantly, and with not nearly as much aplomb.

Leigh C. said...

The Almighty Color Green - oh, how we all throw in every trick in the book and then some in order to get the stuff.

I second GG.

Anonymous said...

What a fine piece. It is so long overdue that someone in a position of responsivbility in this City say just exactly that. Nagin had his chance NLK Day `06 and said just the opposite. - On the issue of "race" Oscar Wild (or someone) once said something akin to the idea that 90% of all disputes result from miscommunication. Never has that been more evident than on the issue of "race" and never has *that* been anywhere more evident than in this town where "race" has such fluid meaning (see arguments in Plessy vs. Ferguson, which involved Homer Plessy, a man of diverse lineage, like so many of us). "Race" is not one of the biological classifications and inherent uselessness of it from a practical matter is evident every time someone tries to employ it. I'll leave it there. Good article.

ALM said...

Excellent post.

Jason Brad Berry said...

- It seems you both suffer from White Guilt. The fact that you wax on about your educational heritage announces loudly that you fear starting an honest conversation about race and it's related issues for fear that you may be labeled a racist.

bullshit. i offered my background simply to provide know....the thing were sorely lacking in this city.

And no...I can't live up to the prowess of Bill Cosby...what a loser I am.

Would you like to compare my writing skills to Faulkner or Nabokov as well?

Anonymous said...

Jack Strain, of "Chee Wee hairdo" fame (or at least notoriety), is the sheriff of St. Tammany Parish, not Chalmette.

Then again, half of St. Bernard Parish (literally) seems to have resettled over there...

Anonymous said...

Killer post, Dambala. I spoke to the IOP tonight and was really uplifted by the YOUNG African-American professionals who have just had it with Nagin and the politics of race. The next citywide elections will determine whether New Orleans survives as a city. I remain optimistic because of our people, all of them, not because of our politicians.

Jeffrey said...

That's some good stuff, Dambala.

Anonymous said...

Bravo, Dambala. I'm a white New Orleanian of Spanish, English, German, and who knows what else heritage--my father's family came to NOLA from the Balearic Islands via Havana in the 1850's (the original "immigrant" is in St. Roch cemetary) from a town where there've been found signs of the Phoenician culture, so maybe I'm one of those rare Phoenician-Americans. I grew up in the Ninth Ward playing a lot of playground basketball, and some of my black teammates were already cluing me in at 12 or 13 years of age that African-American New Orleanians were no more a homogenous group than were white New Orleanians. Many a fair-skinned 7th Ward Creole emphasized that they shared very little culturally with the guy at the side of the court trying to sell stereos out of the trunk of his car, for example.

I've long held pretty much the same opinion on race as you've laid out here, although I've never been able to explain myself quite so succintly.

As for the first Anonymous...obviously you don't need me to come to your defense, Dambala, but I will say this--the points he's put forward here are usually offered by those who find more of a need to fix blame rather than to address problems. Thrilled to quote Cosby when he emphasizes the self-inflicted ills in the black community. Probably not as thrilled to explore reasons behind some of those ills. The kind of guy who tells the fourth-generation alcoholic to "just stop drinking".

mominem said...

Great post. My thinking is along similar lines.

Anonymous said...

All fair enough, but it's also true that the priorities of city governance (appointments, appropriations, contracts, etc) are going to shift drastically as the post-K voting demographic churns out non-black elected officials. Will they consciously act against the interests of the black community? Perhaps not, but one certainly has the right to feel apprehensive about the very real power shift that has taken place since '06.

Jason Brad Berry said...

- Perhaps not, but one certainly has the right to feel apprehensive about the very real power shift that has taken place since '06.

I guess if you look at it purely in terms of certainly have that right. But if you think Nagin has had the African-American community's best interest at heart, or for that matter Gill-Pratt....I think you should take a harder look. I think Mitch Landrieu would have served the N.O. African-American interests much more so than Nagin has.

I don't know...I still can't justify anyone voting simply along racial lines.

Anonymous said...

I have to concur with Mr Longo.
There is a systematic genocide going on in New Orleans that started long before Katrina, ie moving folks out to Nawlins East, that is now in full force once again.
The politicians are merely politicians, regardless of party, controlled by the power elite, who, like most other city in the United States,(Baton Rouge is a classic example) want their cities lived in by high tax paying individuals.
The race card just as the violence card serves all parties both black and white.

Anonymous said...

An extraordinary commentary on an exhausting subject.
It seems so hard to escape but you nailed it with culture. Bravo.

Anonymous said...

"Systematic genocide"????

Overly dramatic, much?? Yeah, I was at the Lowe's on Read Tuesday, and they were just saying how it's just like Darfur out there.....

Angelique said...

I'd like to add my words of appreciation for driving to the core of what I think, but could never articulate. Your words ring much truer and avoid many of the sour notes present in most discussions on the topic. Extremely worthwhile contribution.

I'd like to think there are plenty more in this city who think like you, me, and the many commenters on this blog. I hope our rejection of corruption wins favor over "racial" divisiveness (on both sides, unfortunately) at the end of the day.

Jason Brad Berry said...

- The race card just as the violence card serves all parties both black and white.

what exactly is the violence card? never heard of anyone hiding behind violence as an excuse.

Cait said...

::slow clap::

Well written.