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Bob Herbert: Ferguson Just the Latest in Long Line Of Racist Fueled Tragedies

We are moving backwards because of the persistence of racism and a relaxation of the fight against it.
 
 
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I remember the stunned reaction of so many Americans back in the summer of 2005 when legions of poor black people in desperate circumstances seemed to have suddenly and inexplicably materialized in New Orleans during the flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina.

Expressions of disbelief poured in from around the nation: “How can this be happening?” “I had no idea conditions were that bad.” “My God, is this America?”

People found themselves staring at the kind of poverty they thought had been largely wiped out decades earlier. President George W. Bush seemed as astonished as anyone. He made an eerie, oddly-lit, outdoor appearance in the city’s French Quarter on the evening of September 15 to announce that his administration would wage an all-out fight against the economic distress that continued to plague so many African Americans.

If you had listened to his announcement on the radio, you might have thought you were hearing the ghost of Lyndon Johnson. Poverty in America, said Bush, “has roots in a history of racial discrimination which cut off generations from the opportunity of America.” He added, “We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action.”

Anyone who took Bush’s pledge seriously would have ended up disappointed because nothing of the sort happened. The poor black people of New Orleans faded back into the invisibility from which they had come.

It was ever thus: Some tragic development occurs; the media spotlight homes in on black people who had previously been invisible; instant experts weigh in with their pompous, uninformed analyses; and commitments as empty as deflated balloons are made. This time it’s Ferguson, Missouri, in the spotlight. And you can bet the mortgage that this time will be no different.

The precipitating events that cause these periodic national spasms can vary widely—the flooding of New Orleans, the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the beating of Rodney King. But these tragedies all emerge from the same fetid source – the racism embedded in the very foundation of America.

And it’s that racism—stark, in-your-face, never-ending, frequently murderous—that has so many African-Americans so angry and frustrated, so furious, so enraged. Black people all across America, not just in Ferguson, are angry about the killing of Michael Brown. And they remain angry over the killing of Trayvon Martin. And many are seething over the fatal chokehold clamped on the throat of Eric Garner by a cop on Staten Island in New York – a cop who refused to relent even as Garner gasped, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.”   

They are angry about all those things, but they are also angry and frustrated about so much more. Here are just a few of the complaints. Black people are angry about voter suppression—the relentless, organized, years-long effort to prevent African-Americans from freely exercising their fundamental right to cast a ballot for the candidates of their choice. That effort was bolstered immeasurably and given a veneer of legitimacy last year by the Supreme Court’s vile and destructive evisceration of the Voting Rights Act.

Blacks are angry and bitterly frustrated over the way so many were targeted and victimized by predators in the housing and finance industries, and the disproportionate suffering that African-Americans endured in the subsequent housing meltdown and the recession. And they are angry about being left so far behind in the so-called economic recovery.

Blacks hold a variety of views about the job that Barack Obama has done as president. Most are very supportive; some have been disappointed. But nearly all are furious at the high levels of racism and personal venom that have characterized so much of the opposition not just to the president’s policies but to him personally. Most blacks I know have taken that as an affront to themselves, as well as an appalling affront to the president, and the resentment they feel is off the charts.

 
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