How could FEMA's response not have been racist?

    On Wednesday [September 7] the President decides he should investigate what
    went wrong in his administration's response to the devastation in New Orleans
    and surrounding rural areas.[1]  On Monday [September 12] he declares that the
    slow response not caused by racism.[2] What is going on here?

    This is a pattern that plays itself out repeatedly in the thought patterns of
    European-Americans. We can't imagine that any of our responses to the world
    around us could in any way be influenced by skin color.

    biases, at least on a subconscious level?  Every person of color I have spoken to
    biases, at least on a subconscious level?  Every person of color I haveon the
    subject admits to having gained a partially negative self-image from their
    teachers, their TVs, and their bosses.  Yes they constantly fight these internal
    message tapes, but the tapes are manifestly a part of their lives.
    message tapes, but the tapes are manifestly a part of their lives.

    Are Whites now going to claim that we are superior to people of color in our
    abilities to screen out all racial biases, even on a subconscious level?  That
    would be an awkward claim to try to defend.  Perhaps we should be willing
    instead to hear the wisdom of our friends and colleagues of color as human

    I'm sure that Mr. Brown is unfailingly polite to the African Americans he meets in
    public affairs and private parties.  Surely Mr. Chertoff even has a few such he
    would call "friend."  Mr. Bush himself has demonstrated loyalty to his current
    Secretary of State.  No doubt each of these men and their staffers would certainly
    have said about them, "He hasn't a racist bone in his body."

    The trouble is that for most Whites -- that is to say, not White hooligans who like to
    make statements with their fists -- our racism is not stored in our bones.  It is
    stored in our viscera, the soft tissues of our bellies that knot up when we find
    ourselves in overwhelmingly "other" territory. For most of us it is not that our
    cerebral cortex tells our fists to fly.  It is as if our gut tells our hind-brain to flee and
    our mid-brain to feel fear, disgust, and contempt for the "other."  If our cortex picks
    up on this undercurrent and subsequently tells our fingers to dial the phone or
    not, our tongues to plead or not, and our bodies to recoil or not, that is only to be

    So given this high probability that normal White folks have at least a racist
    intestinal-polyp in our bodies, why are White folks so quick to proclaim that "it
    wasn't racism" for every "it," large and small?  The easy answer is that most of us
    have never thought through the probabilistic reasoning above.

    If we have been woefully ignorant of some portion of the interracial landscape, can
    we not imagine that there might be a few other holes in our education?  We need
    a deeper education if we wish to proclaim what is and isn't true about race.

    Might we not, in particular, investigate the history of the institutions we rely upon
    today -- almost to a one founded during the Jim Crow era -- to see if there might
    be a procedural legacy that perpetuates unequal service?  No matter how
    committed to anti-racist processes the leaders within those institutions might be,
    we all have experienced institutional molasses making change difficult.  And the
    probabilistic reasoning above would indicate that even the most consciously anti-
    racist white administrators in those institutions nevertheless have subconscious
    racial prejudices.

    It is one of the ironies of this disaster that one of the victims of the New Orleans
    flooding was The People's Institute for Survival and Beyond, whose analysis is
    founded on the assertion that the very definition of "racism" should be taken as
    "racial prejudice combined with institutional power." So was response of our
    institutions of government to the devastation wrought by this hurricane influenced
    by racism?  A more realistic question given the above analysis is, "How could it
    not have been?"

    Jack C. Straton
    University Studies
    Portland State University
    Portland, OR, 97207-0751
    [1] "Bush takes reins of inquiry," by Jonathan Weisman and Michael A. Fletcher, September
    07, 2005.
    [2] "Bush denies racial component to response," by Jennifer Loven , The Associated Press, 7:
    55 p.m. PT, 9/12/2005.

    Jack C. Straton, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in PSU's University Studies Program and
    author of a number of journal articles on racism and sexism, including: Activism through
    music, Cherry Muhanji and Jack C. Straton, InventioCreative Thinking about Learning and
    Teaching 7(1) (Spring 2005)