Racial storm in Katrina's wake is part of sad pattern

September 09, 2005|By MICHAEL OLESKER

IN WEST Baltimore yesterday, the outlook was beautiful, and only about 35 years late. At Hollins and Arlington, near the undernourished Hollins Street Market, neighborhood people took great delight in pointing to various buildings as though they had actual money invested in them. They do not. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, somebody should mention this to George W. Bush as he defends himself against charges of racism when his laziness and insensitivity and ineptitude are closer to the point.

New Orleans goes on drowning, and now we have race to consider. It's the American way, isn't it? Many former inhabitants of the doomed city of New Orleans are now accused of paranoia because they declare racism to be a factor in the government's tragically belated response to their agony.

They are wrong, of course. No American government would ever want to see its own people die so quickly, and so abundantly. But slow death across the generations - that's a different story.

You want to know why so many black people cry racism as the bodies are counted after Katrina? The answer's simple. Because it feels like the logical extension of everything handed out over the generations, including the past 35 years, from both political parties: from Republicans in Washington who turned their backs on big cities because so many black people inhabited them and consistently voted Democrat; and from frightened little Democratic politicians who also knew how to count votes and didn't have the gumption to stand up to the Republicans even when they disagreed with them.

This is not news to anybody, is it? It can't possibly be news to anybody who's ventured into the shabbiest parts of Baltimore over the past several decades.

Take West Baltimore. Outside the Hollins Street Market yesterday, you had people insisting that this was not one of the most troubled parts of the city.

And, as such things are measured, they're right. The market, even at its scruffiest, is something of a stabilizing force. Relatively speaking, crime's not so bad around here. And here was one businessman explaining that a nearby commercial building that went for $90,000 five years ago was now available for $800,000. And here was another guy pointing to rowhouses across Arlington Avenue available for nearly $200,000. Previously, they went for maybe $10,000. Much of this because of biotech business coming to the west side of town, and the anticipated fallout.

"The white coats are coming," one neighborhood fellow laughed.

But that line of rowhouses across Arlington Avenue was still abandoned and boarded up - and has been for years, the way such buildings pockmark scores of streets throughout the area. There are nearby corners chilled by drug traffickers. The public schools have turned out several decades of illiterates while teachers deal with crowded classrooms of kids from families where almost everybody lives below the poverty line.

Do we have to mention that the vast majority of these folks are black? Do we have to mention a series of presidents who have turned their backs on such conditions while a procession of big-city mayors from around the country went to Washington and begged for help, and were turned away?

You want to know why there are black people crying racism in the wake of the government response to Hurricane Katrina? It all feels like the natural extension of an endless pattern. Go back to Richard Nixon and his famous Southern strategy, which capitalized on white America's resentment of all civil rights legislation championed by liberal Democrats and fought by conservatives of both parties. Consider Ronald Reagan, who talked of "welfare queens" and gave us "trickle-down" economics that divided the country economically in ways never previously seen.

Then take it to George Bush I. He was a great one on race: He gave us Willie Horton. Remember when the Cold War ended on George I's watch and everybody in desperate U.S. cities talked about a financial "peace dividend" that would bring a new day to decaying urban neighborhoods and school systems and overworked cops and courts? That was more than 15 years ago. The cities are finally getting better, but it's long past the time when Bush I might have taken even the slightest credit.

And then comes the son. The first time Bush II runs for president, he heads straight for Bob Jones University, famed for its legal battles to hold onto tax exemptions while practicing racial discrimination. This was a loud and clear message to everyone paying attention.

Then Bush surrounds himself with people like John Ashcroft, who fought efforts to desegregate public schools in St. Louis, and Trent Lott, the great apologist for Strom Thurmond. Then, while running up the biggest deficits in history, Bush insists on tax breaks for the super-rich and the back of his hand for everybody else, and the yawning gap between rich and poor (and, most dramatically, between black and white) widens to obscene levels.

Here's the problem: In the horrible aftermath of Katrina, you bring up racism and the allegation has the ring of paranoia. It overstates the case. Of course, this government doesn't want citizens dying so horribly, and so abundantly. No American government would.

But slow death - death by economic strangulation, death by ignoring decaying, desperate cities over years and years - that works better. It's so much easier to hide the bodies.

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