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Katrina: Why Race Matters

    I'm still working my way through the comments about race that were posted here yesterday, heretofore known as the Day of the Race Riot.

    The intelligent and thoughtful opinions were, unfortunately, bracketed by some seriously ugly rants. Commenter Peter discerned "an intense stream of ignorance and hatred that ebbed and flowed." I did personally wonder how someone of those people could type their comments while wearing those awkward white hoods.

     Terecico wrote that "if Hurricane Katrina would have hit Long Island, NY and the Hamptons flooded, food and water would have been there within 24 hours." Maybe that's true about the food and water, BUT WHAT ABOUT THE CREME BRULEE???

    Someone named Sheila wrote, "This whole issue of race is stupid," and several other commenters objected  to the way that the media and certain pundits and politicians have supposedly "injected" race into this crisis. I did ask myself, as part of the personal audit I do every 24 hours to ensure that I'm still a good person, whether I had erred in blogging about race. Was I just trying to sell newspapers, as they say? (And can you sell newspapers with a blog? How does that work?)

   Here's the bottom line: Race is central to the story of the United States. I didn't inject that into the narrative. Race is an issue today in NOLA and it was an issue two weeks ago and it has been an issue for roughly four centuries. We had a war over it. We had a century of Jim Crow and then a Civil Rights movement. Someone tell me when race ceased to matter. Just because your favorite athlete is Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods doesn't mean you have an exemption from ever thinking about race again. The "colorblind" society is perhaps a noble goal, but it doesn't exist yet. I don't mean to get all Huey Newton here on the blog, or act like I'm an expert on this topic (those of you who are new to this blog should know that I'm actually out of my depth on almost any issue other than astronomy), but I think it's good that people talk about race openly (while maybe not jumping so fast at the obvious race-baiting and KKK prattle).

     Sometimes you hear people say that "race" is not as relevant as "class." But let's not contort ourselves into some awkward semantic position in order to avoid talking about race head on. If nothing else, it's good to know what people think, where they stand, how they perceive the world. Read Gene Robinson's column today and you'll read of a black schoolteacher who believes the levees of New Orleans were intentionally built to keep the white parts of town dry. As for the unrest at the Convention Center, what provoked people was the way the food was shoved at them by rescuers hovering in helicopters -- a demeaning gesture, as though they were Third World refugees.

    The race story is not necessarily a tale of woe and conflict. One of the great strengths of the country today is that it's multicultural. It's definitely more interesting than living in a racially and ethnically homogenized society (such as the place I just returned from). I'll take America over any of the competitors.    

By Joel Achenbach  |  September 5, 2005; 9:13 AM ET
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