September 30th, 2005

Tarot - 4 of cups

So Now We Know. Now What?

This was in Sunday's New York Times. I made an excuse not to write about it at the time. I made another excuse not to write about it yesterday, too. Now I'm writing it. And my eyes aren't dry. Do you know what that means? I didn't cry at my father's funeral. I didn't cry when I thought all was lost and I was going to end up living in a cardboard box under an overpass. I didn't cry for Margaret Sale, an ex-girlfriend of mine who was murdered by a drunk driver. I only barely cried for the Challenger, and that not until a week later while watching their funerals. It's just not something I do.

Jim Dwyer and Christopher Wren, "Fear Exceeded Crime's Reality in New Orleans," New York Times, Sunday, September 29th, 2005.

So what's to cry about? That's the good news, right? Human beings aren't savages after all?

I cry because of the next question that has to be asked. And it's not the question that makes me tear up. It's the answer. The question is, "Why did so many people believe the worst?"

Thankfully, it turns out that it wasn't hundreds of people who died of dehydration and lack of essential health care at the New Orleans Convention Center. After repeated searches of the complex, only 24 bodies were found, and one of those died by violence. At the Superdome, after repeated careful searches of the entire building and for a block around it, they found 10 bodies, one of which died by violence. So what did the other 32 people die of?

Our fear. Of black men.

You don't believe me?

When I took psychology in college, there was a vivid example in our textbook. In an early experiment, groups of people were shown a slide, projected on a large screen, for 5 seconds, and told to memorize as much about it as they could. The image showed a black man and a white man struggling. The white man had a knife, and the black man was trying to hold back the knife hand to keep from being stabbed. And in multiple runs, across all walks of life, something like 19 out of 20 people "saw" the knife in the black man's hand. Including other black men.

Of course, that was so long ago. Which is why, just a year ago, a prominent black spokesperson admitted, to his shame, that when he hears footsteps behind him in the street on a dark night, if he looks back behind him and sees a woman or a white man, he feels relief. Which is why, in the first few days after Katrina made landfall, I saw multiple Internet postings relaying messages from inside the flooded city, at least three of them, using a phrase I haven't heard spoken aloud since I was a very small child, one that ran chills down my spine because I'd never thought to hear it again: "niggers running around with guns." I'm pretty sure that at least one of the people who reported being afraid to do his job because the town was full of niggers running around with guns was a police officer who happened to be of African-American descent himself.

A random loud noise on the street outside the Superdome that sounds like a gunshot. No sniper found, no rifle found, no bullet found, no shot seen, just a noise. And all ambulance pickups from the Superdome stop until the US Army can roll in and secure the city. One cop screams for backup because he's pinned down by a sniper. It turns out to be the pressure relief valve on a gas tank popping intermittently, but word of the snipers shooting at cops spread so much faster than the report of what really happened -- and by the end of the day, black SUVs full of mercenaries, whenever they hear a pop or a bang, are spraying machine gun fire into crowds camped on overpasses to get out of the water. Rumors from we don't even know where of running gun battles in the convention center exhibit halls, and when FEMA gets shamed over the fact that babies, in America, are being left to die of thirst, and Michael Brown orders something to be done now at any cost and any risk, what happens? A single helicopter shows up, and without landing kicks a single pallet of bottled water out the door for thousands of people. Why wouldn't they land? Because they were afraid.

Even if our worst, darkest, most evil fears are true, even if there are uncivilized animals walking around among us in the shape of men and those animals disproportionately wear dark skin (and I don't believe it, but even if), then America should be harshly judged by the gods for our cowardice. When the Red Cross relief trucks were being held back by armed National Guardsmen for fear that their bottled water and medicines would only be hijacked by armed gangs and sold on the black market, somebody should have shown some courage. For God's sake, man, it's the International Red Cross and Crescent Society. They're delivering food and water and medicine right now in Darfur, Sudan in the middle of a civil war. Dare I hope that some driver made the offer I would have? "Let me go in with one truckload of food and water and medicine, at my own risk, without any hope of rescue or backup. If I make it to the convention center, then it's safe, and the rest of the convoys can follow, and we'll save those people. And if not, well, I'll be dead or captured, and the black market will be a few dollars richer, but we'll know. Isn't that worth risking?" Maybe one did offer. But if he did, the men with the guns -- for the god's sake, the trained men with guns that we're depending on to protect us in the event of an attack! -- were afraid to gamble a single man with a single truck full of supplies. We will never, in my lifetime, atone for that sin as a nation. May the gods have mercy on all of us, even though no mercy we deserve.

And what were we afraid of that we were willing to believe any scary story, no matter how silly? When somebody said something so preposterous as that snipers were shooting at ambulances, why did anybody believe it? When somebody else said that an organized army of 400 to 500 armed looters was marching on the town of Westwego, an event that if it happened would be completely unprecedented in human history, not only was that person not laughed at to his face, but two of the cops in Westwego threw down their badges and guns and fled into the night.

And some of you are so deep in denial that you will tell me that this had nothing to do with that vast, almost unbroken sea of black faces on our television sets. With the fact that almost everybody who didn't make it out was black, and more importantly, that we knew that. That we saw video evidence the second day of pawn shops that had been looted of guns. (Which, it turns out later, were taken by police. Yes, the police. Rearming themselves for the emergency after losing their police station and equipment locker to the flood.) Because there is something in almost every American, black or white, male or female, almost every one of us that just "knows," deep down, that if a group of angry black men have access to guns, and if the cops' radios go out so they can't call for backup, that in less than 24 hours an American city can degenerate into a monstrous orgy of subhuman crime, vice, and violence.

May I bitterly remind you that I warned you about this at the time? That to every report of mass or organized violence, I asked whether it was a first hand report or a rumor? That I reminded you, when they stopped the evacuation of the Superdome, that we had only two verified shooting injuries and no actual verified shooting deaths in all of New Orleans in that whole long weekend to that date? Forgive me for doing so, it's cruel of me. But letting myself feel and express my anger that I was right, that a few of us (yes, including many of you, my readers and friends) were right when such a large majority of America was wrong, and we weren't believed ... well, that anger gives me a break from typing through tears. I needed that break.

I thought we were getting better. That's why this hurts so bad. There were still Jim Crow laws when I was born. The Civil Rights Act didn't pass until I was 4. I was 8 when several cities had buildings, or even whole blocks, go up in flames over anger at Martin Luther King Jr's assassination. And, as I've written before, when I was 12 and 13, my previously very white suburb and school went through a very violent, insanely violent desegregation. But even that last event was 32 years ago. And in those 32 years, I thought we'd healed, at least some. And after 32 years of time passed, 32 years of overt and subtle pressure to convince people that racism was neanderthalic, something to be ashamed of, to find out that we as a nation are just as afraid of black men as we were 40 years ago, as we were 140 years ago ... it brings me to tears.

We can stop asking why, when black women, white women, and white men use drugs at roughly the same rate, and sell drugs to each other at roughly the same rate, that it's so disproportionately black men who go to jail for it. We can stop all the elaborate tracking surveys to find out whether or not there is racial profiling in traffic stops, an informal crime of "driving while black." We know the answer now, and we should be ashamed of it before our children and before all nations and in the eyes of the gods: we lock black men up because we're still afraid of them.

There were probably 20,000 black men, more or less, in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. As many of them were armed as wanted to be, and with anything they wanted to carry. Nearly all of them had been poor all their lives, and had been raised in the most dysfunctional families in America, and educated in some of the worst schools in America, and governed by one of the most famously corrupt police departments in American history. Probably roughly half of them, maybe more, had been sent to jail or prison at least once already in their lives. And perhaps most importantly, all of them were very legitimately angry that they had been left behind to die. And in there with them were less than 1200 police officers. Those 1200 police officers had lost nearly all their equipment in the hurricane or the floods. By day two, their radios and cellphones died, and they had no way to call for backup. If armed and angry black men were truly dangerous, if it truly took elite paratrooper units to protect food convoys from them, we'd know it now, wouldn't we? The evidence of it would be writ large all over the streets of New Orleans. What do we see instead? Two confirmed dead of violence, and nobody even knows for sure if one of them was killed by a black man. Who knows how many killed by heavily armed white paramilitaries who admit to firing into crowds. And 29 dead of governmental neglect motivated by cowardice.

May we now take it as proven that it is not the black men who are dangerous? No, I suppose we may not. "There are none so blind as they who will not see," and on the subject of race, nearly all Americans lie to themselves. We've been lying to ourselves about this since before I was born. I'd hoped that after a generation of increasingly integrated work places, a successfully integrated military, somewhat integrated schools and neighborhoods, and rising interracial marriage (my true hope for a better future), that our fears had subsided. Which, when I think about what I know about the migration patterns in the St. Louis metropolitan area, means that I was lying to myself about it, too.

I thought time would do it. Tomorrow I'll wake up, and try to convince myself that time will still do it, and it just hasn't been enough time. But tonight, I weep, that in my lifetime our national fears have not subsided, and our cowardice has risen, and our cowardice killed at least 29 people in New Orleans in grisly and painful ways.