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If You're Black, Get Back

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Sixty years ago, Big Bill Broonzy sang about America's Jim Crow system,
If you is white, you's alright,
if you's brown, stick around,
but if you's black, hmm, hmm, brother,
get back, get back, get back

Recent events indicate that Jim Crow didn't die, it mutated. As a result many black citizens still find themselves sitting at the back of the opportunity bus.

As a white Berkeley guy, I claim no special insight on racism. I used to think of it as an embarrassment, an aberration, someone else's problem. Now that I'm older, now that I have people-of-color in my family and among my friends, it pisses me off. I take it personally.

At least in the abstract most Americans disavow bigotry. They feel that it's shameful that American citizens are being discriminated against because of the color of their skin. Nonetheless, it's still happening. Unfortunately, it's no longer politically correct to talk about racism. In many circles it's passe', "too sixties."

The latest Gallop Poll asks "What do you think is the most important problem facing the country today?" Americans are bothered by a lot of things: Iraq, healthcare, and public morality, among others. Thirteen percent are concerned about immigration and "illegal aliens." But less than one percent are worried about "race relations/racism." So there's no national dialogue about race. As a result, it's become primarily the responsibility of commentators-of-color to point out that for many Americans the notion of "liberty and justice for all" is an empty promise.

Three recent events illustrate that racism in America is alive and largely ignored. The first was the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, where the poor, mostly black residents of New Orleans got the shaft because they were poor and black. You can't convince me that if New York City had been hit by a category five hurricane, and Manhattan flooded, that we'd have left the white residents of the upper-east-side stranded in their buildings for several days. Or that the Feds would be dragging their feet getting rebuilding money to Wall Street merchants. Be serious. What's happening in New Orleans is the new face of racism. A correspondent for the UK's Guardian called it "ethnic and class cleansing." He said, "This is the New South with a new, more subtle, but no less effective, racism. Black demands for full citizenship no longer fall foul of the law of the land but instead the law of probabilities. They were more likely to be flooded, more likely to be displaced, the least likely to be able to return, and therefore the least likely to be able to vote."

The second event is the genocide in the Sudan region of Darfur, where 400,000 have died and 2.5 million have been driven from their homes (more than the population of Utah). Despite the solemn pledge of "never again" taken after discovery of the Holocaust, the United States and the other nations of the first world have a woeful record with regards to genocide. We did intervene to save white folks in Bosnia, where 200,000 were killed. But, nobody's talking about the US getting involved in Darfur; it's seen as somebody else's problem, the U.N. or the African Union. The failure of the US to take seriously what's going on in Darfur is another face of racism - let those folks "take care of their own."

The third event is the crisis facing America's black men. In March the The New York Times published an important article about the depth and breadth of this problem. Three statistics jumped out of the studies cited. The first is that in 2004, an astonishing "50 percent of black men in their 20's who lacked a college education were jobless." The second is that "among black dropouts in their late 20's, more are in prison on a given day -34 percent - than are working - 30 percent." Finally, "about half of all black men in their late 20's and early 30's who did not go to college are noncustodial fathers," fathers who quite often do not support their children.

Of course, there are many reasons for this crisis and racism is just one of them. Equally important are bad schools, dysfunctional families, the decline of blue-collar jobs and the growth of the "gangsta" culture. Nonetheless, this is a crisis that affects all Americans, particularly those who live in urban cities. The fact that it is being ignored, the reality that after the Times article was published there was no outrage expressed, except by black columnists like Bob Herbert, Salim Muwakkil, and Cynthia Tucker, is an indication of another face of racism.

America needs to face the fact that Jim Crow hasn't gone away. It's just mutated into a less obvious form of racism than segregated public facilities. Now it's about access to the fundamentals of human dignity, like adequate education and healthcare including psychological services. Services that should be guaranteed to all citizens but are not.

Americans used to believe in the notion of the common good. The idea that "I am my brother's keeper and my sister's keeper." Somewhere in the last few years this notion got replaced by a simpler maxim, "What's in it for me?"

The Bush Administration epitomizes this maxim and, as a result, has pulled America into the toilet. As we struggle to get out we can either do it as individuals or relearn how to work together. We can either ignore our problems, like racism, or face them and build a new community. We can either discard democracy or embrace it.
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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.
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