Tuesday, November 21, 2006

"Was it something I said?" - Apparently, there is a fine line between genius and insanity. In the past few days, Seinfeld's Michael Richards has found himself on the wrong side of the line. But perhaps all of this is a case of Mr. Richards not grasping the concept. What Richards neglected - to his ignominy - is that if you wish to project racist attitudes in an otherwise civil society, you must do so through a gullible third party. In so doing you can be held up as a comedic giant, a la Borat.

In the hopes of getting a bit more clarity on how this episode informs the issue of race in America, let’s consider three basic questions. First off, is there racism in America? Mr. Richard's tirade would suggest that the answer is “yes.” Secondly, are there racial disparities between blacks and whites in America, to which I again confidently answer in the affirmative. The tricky question, upon which all else hangs, is whether isolated acts or expressions of racism and/or the presence of race-based disparities indicates that America itself is a racist country. My guess, based on events over the last 40 years, is that America is indeed not a racist country. And as will be discussed elsewhere, in as much as there is such a thing as institutionalized racism, it is discretely confined to so-called progressive institutions (i.e.: the media, the civil rights community and the education establishment.)

To assume otherwise would be to argue that a racially identifiable power elite in America works through societal, legal and economic means to oppress another race, as race-based oppression appears to be the self-identifying characteristic of racism. That would also assume that the powerful actually find themselves interested or concerned about those whom they oppress. In truth, what we have in modern-day America, as distinct from generations past, is that power elites are as concerned about the underclass as much as the underclass is concerned about itself, which is to say, not very. What poor blacks and other members of the underclass are dealing with today is frank indifference on the part of the upper classes, not overt oppression. (I do acknowledge that the belief that members of one race are conspiring against another is a seductive conceit for the oppressed in that it offers moral superiority as compensation for socio-economic lowliness.)

In his rambling apology on last night's Late Show, Richards mentioned Hurricane Katrina and it's aftermath. Katrina also provided us a powerful lens by which to examine the effect of race in this country vis-a-vis other factors.
On the subject of Katrina, let us be clear about one thing as it regards the hurricane and its aftermath. The level of poverty and depravity that served as a full-frontal obscenity had nothing whatsoever to do with race or racism. It was evidence of neither an innate black inferiority nor a systemic, all-pervasive bias against African Americans or the poor. Indeed, what we saw had everything to do with the culture of the citizens of New Orleans and its environs.

It is beyond debate that the residents of New Orleans were poorly served by the state and federal governments in the aftermath of Katrina. But is also true that much of what occurred after the levies were breached resulted from a pre-existing local culture that saw no harm in predatory politicians, unaccountable government, ineffectual or corrupt law enforcement, diminished educational opportunity, and a moribund local economy that resulted in an intensity of lack more reminiscent of Haiti than of the United States. Even with the massive depopulation occasioned by Katrina, the murder rate in New Orleans remains several times the national average. Lest we forget, even though the same storm ravaged both the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and New Orleans, we don’t recall televised scenes of looting and general anarchy coming out of Mississippi entirely because there were none. And if we are to take anything from the re-election of New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin in May of this year, it appears that such a situation is preferred by the citizens of New Orleans.

I cite the foregoing in an effort to preempt those on the Left, white and black, who would posit that Mr. Richards' unfortunate comments are symptomatic of the existence of an all-pervasive, systemic racism in America. Nothing could be further from the truth. The very fact that Richards is at the center of a storm of opprobrium indicates that Americans have long since shed any vestiges of a collective racism. Would that progressive elites could do likewise.

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