Even in the Ruins, Race Matters
One morning a few days after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center a young Afro-American woman called in to C-Span and asked whether all the talk about the new unity of purpose being forged in the fires of adversity would survive after the state of emergency had passed, "or will racism still be here?" Judging by the phone calls that ensued many listeners, this writer included, thought it a naive question. Of course racism will be with us long after this incident recedes into memory, most callers argued. And after listening to James' story, (he asked that his last name not be used) one of the few African American men working on the site, that naivete seems magnified.
"There is racism all over down in the disaster area," he says "and it's blatant too!" Perhaps, along with a history of racist exclusion in the uniform services and the building trades, that's why we observe a sea of white faces every time we are given a tour of the site on TV. "See, part of the problem is that there are a lot of out of town guys that they have put in authoritative positions, and they don't know how to deal with diverse races because many of them come from all white towns around the country where they have never had to deal with black and Hispanic people."
According to James the problem for black construction workers, who are a small percentage of the rescue force, begins when they approach the site. "There are thousands of workers down there, and to enter the site you have to go through armed checkpoints," he says," one guy will ask you for your ID and another guy standing two feet from him watching the whole procedure will stop you and put you through it again." And he was quick to point that this was the attitude of the armed white men securing ground zero whether they were military or civilian cops.
"If you are my color," James says, pointing to his rich ebony colored skin, "you can see the pure racism on their faces." However light brown skin Hispanics and Afro-Americans are encountering even bigger problems. "But if you are just dark enough to be an Arab, then you really got a problem. My cousin is light skin and he gets a lot of hassles.
"When we walk through check points it's usually three of us and we all have the same union issue and state ID's, but they let us pass and pull him aside. He and I have the same last name but that doesn't matter; sometimes they detain him for ten minutes or more just checking out his ID. But while they be checking us out to the max, always calling in supervisors to double check our ID's, the white boys just flash their cards and walk on through."
Work clothes have been donated to the rescue workers in such abundance that the site managers are giving them away to workers. But James tells us "If you are black and walking off the site with one of the big bags they give you to carry the work gear you are asking for trouble. We often get stopped leaving the site. A crowd of black and white workers can approach the security people with bags and they pull the black workers over, like they suspect us of looting or something. I mean their whole body language during the interrogation is aggressive, looking us up and down with their hands on their guns. It's really annoying, seems like every single day there's something. But you just look past it because we've got a serious job to do. But we talk about it all the time amongst ourselves."
The real drag about all the suspicion of looting is that James has witnessed white cops looting. Recently some media talking heads were expressing disbelief that any of "these heroes could be engaged in looting." Perhaps that's why they are not reporting incidents like the one James describes: " See, there are still a lot of stores in the disaster area that have broken windows and at night some of these areas are without lights. So it's a thieves paradise except there aren't suppose to be any thieves out there, and it would be nearly impossible for them to get off the site with there loot. But the other night I saw six white cops get busted with several Rolex wristwatches that they had stolen from an expensive shop in the financial district. I saw this happen but I have not seen a word of it on television!"
Having gone into the Navy right out of high school, where he was a basketball star with college scholarship offers, James has recently returned to civilian life and is resuming his education. Since his college is located in the disaster area, he is not falling behind in his classes. A sensitive and intelligent young man who is barely twenty, James is highly conscious of the role misguided American foreign policy has contributed to the rise of militant Islam.
The aircraft carrier on which he was assigned once steamed to the Persian Gulf and participated in an action against Iraq. At the time he didn't understand the purpose of the mission but as a flight director on deck "I saw the weapons director load the planes with weapons and they came back empty." This experience has made him skeptical of what the media or government tells us about what's going on in the world, and he is far less hawkish than the politicians calling for the invasion of Afghanistan.
After spending many hours digging through the rubble James believes that the final toll maybe exceed the present estimate of around 6, 400 casualties. As the stench of death grows more pronounced with each passing day at the site, James finds that his military training helps him to cope with the grotesque reality that now consumes twelve hours of his day. "The smell of rotting bodies is getting so bad that they may eventually have to evacuate some parts of this city," he says. "Right now some of the guys I'm working with are getting sick because they can't eat their lunch after smelling the stench. But the military trained me to cope with a situation where mass killing was taking place."