"One of the most important, though most subtle
and elusive, aspects of white supremacy," notes the radical
black philosopher Charles W. Mills, "is the barrier it erects
to a fair hearing. It is not merely," Mills adds, "that
people of color are trying to make a case for the economic and juridico-political
injustice of their treatment; it is that they are additionally handicapped
in doing so by having to operate within a white discursive field."
Within that biased field, Mills observes, "the framework
of debate is not neutral: it is biased by dominant white cognitive
patterns of structured ignorance, an overt or hidden white normativity
so that at the basic factual level, many claims of people of color
will just seem absurd, radically incongruent with the sanitized
picture white people have of U.S. history." It doesn't
help, Mills adds, that "the physical segregation of white and
nonwhite populations" creates "a segregation of experience"
that reinforces "radically divergent pictures of the world.
Typically white and typically black realities - in terms of everyday
experience with government bureaucracies, the police, and
the job market, housing, and so forth - are simply not the same."
After reading this passage from Mills' provocative book From
Class to Race: Essays in White Marxism and Black Radicalism
(New York, NY: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003) the other day, I flashed
back to my most depressing classroom experience ever. It took
place in the tragic aftermath of what I sometimes call "Tropical
Storm and Societal Failure Katrina." Only days before,
the nation had been treated to a series of graphic televised images
displaying poor and black New Orleans residents stuck on the roofs
of their flooded homes, begging for assistance. Millions of
television viewers saw who got left behind in a toxic watery Hell
in one of the nation's great cities after August 28, 2005, when
federal emergency officials warned George W. Bush that New Orleans'
under-funded levees would be overwhelmed.
Largely at my instigation, an American History survey course I was
teaching at Northern Illinois University became engaged in an obviously
hyper-racialized tragedy in New Orleans. As the debate proceeded,
it became evident that most of my predominantly white and suburban
Chicago-area students could grasp no compelling explanation for
the terrible scenes on their television than poor blacks' alleged
laziness, stupidity, and self-destructiveness.
"What," one incredulous Caucasian
student demanded to know, "were they doing there with a level
5 hurricane bearing down?!" "You can't help people
who won't help themselves," another white student volunteered.
"It's not white people's fault that some people who happened
to be white had enough sense to get out of there and other people
who happen to be black didn't."
Upon hearing these lovely opinions,
some of the six black students sitting in the lecture hall rolled
their eyes. Others in that small group stared at their desks.
All of these black students were from segregated Chicago,
where three-fourths of blacks live in 22 disproportionately impoverished
and depressed neighborhoods that are 90 percent or more black. The
broadly prosperous but highly unequal city of Chicago has 77 neighborhoods.
When the first white student spoke, I had just finished arguing
that the images from New Orleans were the all-too natural and predictable
outcome of numerous venerable structurally and ideologically entrenched
problems and disparities of race, class, power, policy, and place.
The related and intimately interconnected difficulties I discussed
included black residential hyper-segregation, an all-too anti-public
transportation system built around the ubiquitous and climate-heating
(and thereby hurricane-intensifying) private automobile, endemic
economic racism, authoritarian bureaucratic maneuvering (including
the marginalizing incorporation of the Federal Emergency Management
Agency into the massive new Department of Homeland Security), related
to the imperialist "war on terror," white-driven metropolitan
housing "sprawl" (significantly responsible for the loss
of wetlands that reduce the power of tropical storm surges), and
the massive diversion of public resources from investment in social
and ecological health (including wetlands preservation, levee maintenance,
and poverty reduction programs) to pay for imperial militarism and
plutocratic tax cuts.
the way, I had quoted from a recent front-page article in the New
York Times, where reporter Jason DeParle observed that "race
and class were the unspoken markers of who got out and who got stuck"
in flooded New Orleans. "What a shocked world saw exposed in
New Orleans last week," DeParle said, "wasn't just a broken
levee. It was a chasm of race and class at once familiar and
startlingly new, laid bare in a setting where they suddenly amounted
to matters of life and death. Hydrology joined sociology through
the story line, from the settling of the flood-prone city, where
well-to-do white people lived on the high ground, to its frantic
abandonment." Since the 1970s, DeParle noted, New Orleans "has
become unusually segregated," so that "the white middle-class
is all but gone, moved north across Lake Ponchartrain or west to
Jefferson Parish - home of [former Ku Klux Klan leader] David Duke"
In a society where the atomistic auto trumps public transit,
De Parle noted, "evacuation was especially difficult for the
more than one third of black New Orleans households that lacked
Katrina's tragic aftermath, I told students, provided a graphic
illustration of the skewed and savagely color-coded ways that America's
social and spatial arrangements apportion "freedom" -
a term that George W. Bush uses frequently but never bothers to
define and whose limits and contested and complex meanings he never
seems to appreciate.
I related it all to the core idea in the textbook assigned for the
class: Eric Foner's Give Me Liberty! An American History
(2005). "No idea," Foner says in the preface to
that text, "is more fundamental to Americans' sense of themselves
as individuals and as a nation than freedom. The central term in
our political language, freedom - or liberty, with which it is almost
always used interchangeably - is deeply embedded in the record of
our history and language of everyday life." But "the
very universality of the idea of freedom," Foner argues, "can
be misleading. Freedom," he counsels, "is not a fixed,
timeless category with a single unchanging definition. Indeed, the
history of the United States is, in part, a story of debates, disagreements,
and struggles over freedom." Furthermore: "over the course
of our history, American freedom has been both a mythical ideal
- a living truth for millions of Americans, a cruel mockery for
others." During their contentious history, Foner tells students,
Americans have engaged in repeated epic conflicts over "(1)
the meanings of freedom; (2) the social conditions that make freedom
possible; and (3) the boundaries of freedom that determine who is
entitled to enjoy freedom and who is not." Katrina, I
suggested, was an opportune moment to reflect on the living relevance
of Foner's analysis, with special reference to boundaries relating
It didn't work. My efforts to get the classroom's white majority
to think about the role of systemic racial, residential, socioeconomic
and transportation or mobility disadvantages in making escape unlikely
and even impossible for many black New Orleans residents were to
little avail. The concept of masses of human beings being
precariously ensnared in at once sociologically and topographically
[deadly] space by authoritarian sociopolitical circumstances related
to skin color was simply too alien and bizarre for the majority
I had run head-first into a "white discursive" force field
composed of "dominant white cognitive patterns of structured
ignorance" that made "the claims of people of color"
seem "absurd and radically incongruent" with common sense.
When I asked students if they would have broken into a grocery store
to survive had they somehow been caught in New Orleans when the
levees gave way, a white female student I'll call Rebecca swore
she would "never violate property rights under any circumstances."
When a black female student expressed disbelief and asked "so
what would you have done?" the young white lady stammered,
saying "I just would have kept walking." Another
black student pressed her: "What about the heat and the thirst
and the rumors of supplies at the Convention Center. The sun
was beating down. And what about what Professor Street said
about people maybe being turned back when they tried to cross bridges
into the suburbs?" "Well," the white student said,
with tears starting to well up in her eyes, "I don't know,
but I just wouldn't have gotten myself in that situation in the
"In other words," the first black student said with unconcealed
disgust, "you all wouldn't have been born black and poor in
New Orleans." "Bulls Eye," I said to myself, as the
class's black students laughed and nodded their heads in knowing
The white majority protested, changing
the subject to what struck them as the most relevant part of the
story from the Crescent City: the animal recklessness, personal
irresponsibility, and general cultural failure of all the black
"looters," "killers," and "rapists"
running loose in New Orleans because the storm had disabled the
thin blue police-state line that keeps savage non-white inner-city
residents under proper control. The white students seemed particularly
influenced by the media's focus on evacuation hold-outs and the
efforts of public authorities to convince evacuation laggards to
leave their homes. This media narrative encouraged a marvelous reality
inversion, for the real and far more statistically significant story
was that most of the trapped New Orleans residents had long been
stuck - largely in accord with public authority's policies - on
the wrong sides of their nation and metropolitan area's geographical,
social, and ecological divides. They had been left behind
against their wishes by government's not-so "benign neglect."
Later the same week, the white female student visited me in my office
to complain bitterly of how she had been victimized in the classroom.
After class, my teaching assistant Jeff (a fellow-leftist
and former union organizer) and I headed to a local tavern to drown
our memories of the above proceedings in a sea of beer. A 25-year-old
white male Katrina evacuee with a thick Cajun accent asked to join
our table after overhearing our discussion of the day's classroom
occurrences. He had just gotten off a Greyhound Bus. We listened
as he told us that he'd seen New Orleans police officers looting
numerous retail outlets and verified nascent Internet rumors about
inner city residents being turned away by force at suburban bridges.
Reflecting later on the unintended consequences of my effort to
use Katrina as a teachable moment in the living history of the nation's
troubled class and race relations, it struck me that five years
of working in and around the relatively progressive bubble of the
black and urban racial justice communities had dulled me to how
well the nation's dominant ideological institutions were working
in the white-suburban majority.
The brilliant and prolific left sociologist C. Wright Mills once
said that the core purpose of meaningful analytical work on social
and political affairs was to make relevant connections between individual
pain and structural inequality. The point of such work, by Mills'
reckoning, was to de-atomize personal difficulty and relate it to
broader contextualizing forces of class, race, bureaucracy, and
The dominant authoritarian and corporate
neoliberal ideology of our time works in the opposite direction.
It tells us to separate the personal from the societal. It expects
us to think of ourselves and others as autonomous sole actors -
a veritable mass of self-produced Robinson Crusoes (with Crusoe's
slave Friday deleted from the formulation), each living on his or
her own island of possessive-individualist economic rationality
and "personal responsibility." If some of the Crusoes
happen to be extravagantly wealthy and powerful while a much larger
number of individuals are poor and defenseless, dominant ideology
tells us, this is because of characteristics internal to each personally
self-made (or self-unmade) and self-responsible (or self- irresponsible)
individual. By the standard common-sense conventional wisdom imposed
by hegemonic white ideology, America is the land of "equal
opportunity" where every individual is free to climb as far
as his or her peculiar combination of ability and drive will take
them. And if a disproportionate number of people in the privileged
category happen to be white and a disproportionate share of the
folks in the under-privileged category happen to be black, many
whites and some blacks believe in the post-Civil Rights era, that's
simply an unfortunate indication that too many blacks lack the personal
drive and/or innate ability exemplified by such virtuous and hard-working
Americans of African ancestry as Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell,
and Oprah Winfrey. It's proof that large numbers of blacks are personally,
culturally, and/or (in the most toxic variant of not-always-so-"New
Age" Racism) biologically unfit to individually advance (as
a larger share of whites have supposedly done) in a noble, color-blind
nation where all of us are equally free to turn our personal islands
into either a Gold Coast or a Slum.
the same time, my misbegotten experiment in shaking up the history
classroom reminded me that one of the many prices racial apartheid
imposes on black America is the way it renders so much black experience
invisible and unintelligible to the politically dominant (excessively
so in a "winner-take-all" electoral system ) white majority.
Part of the explanation for why so many of my young
white students were such easy prey for the victim-blaming and racially
vicious "conservative" framing of Katrina is found in
their simple physical and experiential ignorance, partly unintentional
thanks to residential race apartheid, of what life is like in isolated,
all-black neighborhoods like New Orleans' Ninth Ward or Chicago's
Riverdale - a South Side neighborhood where more than half the children
lived at less than half the government's notoriously inadequate
poverty level at the peak of the record-setting economic expansion
of the 1990s.
The savage invisibility that racial separatism enforces on black
pain and struggle is part of why Martin Luther King warned sternly
against the emerging pattern, already well underway in his day,
of urban "white flight." "I see nothing in the world,"
King wrote in 1967, "more dangerous than Negro cities ringed
by white suburbs."
Having led predominantly white and suburban students on a handful
of "sociological tours" of Chicago's neighborhoods (rich,
poor, Latino, black, and white), my sense is that many young Caucasians
seem genuinely and only partly intentionally ignorant of racial
segregation's extent and what it means for their fellow Americans
who happen to have been born poor and black and living in your nearest
black inner city or suburban inner-ring ghetto. Many of the Caucasian
youth I've taken in and out of inner-city black America are quite
progressively influenced by what they see and hear. How long
does the positive impact last? How deep does it go? And how
much can such temporary border-crossing do to counter the aforementioned
white-cognitive wall of indifference and ignorance (both intentional
and unintentional)? I really can't say. Still, I do
highly recommend the development of programs and activities (e.g.
suburban and inner-city school exchange-days) designed both to let
white kids learn more about life in the black inner city and to
let black youth develop a sharper sense of just how completely they
are being ripped off by racial apartheid in the "land of the
Paul Street (firstname.lastname@example.org)
is a Visiting Professor in U.S. History at Northern Illinois University.
Between 2000 and 2005 he was Vice President for Research and
Planning at the Chicago Urban League. He is the author of
Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder,
CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2004), and Segregated Schools: Educational
Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York, NY: Routledge,
2005). His next book, Racial Apartheid in a Global Metropolis
(Rowman and Littlefield) will be available next year.