A lesson on racism they might understand

April 10, 2005|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

WASHINGTON - Call it proof that progress is sometimes perverse.

Meaning Eddie Jordan, district attorney for Orleans Parish in Louisiana. First black district attorney in New Orleans' history. That's the progress.

Here's the perverse: Soon after he took office in January 2003, Mr. Jordan fired 53 white employees en masse and replaced them all with blacks.

Last week, a federal court ruled that he committed racial discrimination against 43 of those workers. A jury of eight whites and two blacks ordered him to pay $1.9 million in back pay and damages.

Though he denies firing people on the basis of race - he claims he doesn't know what color the axed employees were - Mr. Jordan does allow that he sought to make his office more racially representative of its community. The explanation taxes credulity.

Making the district attorney's office representative is a worthy goal. But you simply do not come into a place and start clearing people away like brush on the basis of race. There are better ways of achieving the objective.

Still, with all that said, this episode is instructive.

In recent years, some white people have attempted to co-opt the language of the civil rights movement and turn it against itself. Consider those conservatives who piously quote the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to buttress their opposition to affirmative action.

To listen to them, you'd think he never said anything except that famous line about color of skin and content of character. You'd never know that when challenged to say why the nation should do something special for "the Negro," he pointedly observed that the nation had done something special against "the Negro" for centuries.

And then there's the whole "reverse racism" thing. It works like this: A black bigot mistreats an unoffending white person. White observers tout it as proof the discrimination shoe is now on the other foot. When you refuse to agree that white Americans are grievously wounded victims of black bias, they start mewling about double standards.

So you try to explain. You say that if racism meant only occasional mistreatment by the occasional unenlightened moron, there'd never have been a need for affirmative action. Or the Civil Rights Act. Or the Voting Rights Act. Or all that shooting in the 1860s.

Not to minimize mistreatment, but that, per se, was never the problem. Rather, the problem was the ability of one group to codify that mistreatment in law and custom, wielding the levers of power to make life difficult for another group. Not simply to mistreat them, but to deny them work, lodging, education, housing, justice, life. And to do so with impunity. Systemic racism, you say.

And they look at you and tell you they have no idea what you mean.

Eddie Jordan is what I mean.

I called this perverse progress because the very fact that he is in a position to hurt 43 white people suggests that black people enjoy unparalleled new access to the levers of power. It's sad - but predictably consistent with human nature - that he used those levers as he did.

However, in doing so, maybe he offers some of my white countrymen a chance to see what they say they cannot. Maybe, in employing his office to injure strangers whose only sin was melanin deficiency, he helps my countrymen understand what they find incomprehensible. And maybe they should ponder what might have happened, what options would have been left the plaintiffs, had the lawyers, the bailiffs, the clerks, the judges, the system, all been lined up against them.

Consider that scenario, and understanding might become clearer still.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun.

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