During President Bush's lengthy press conference Monday morning, the topic of relief for Hurricane Katrina victims came up, and he was asked by a reporter what he would be "giving to the nation on the issue of race" in 2006. His reply was telling...and slightly desperate: "One of the jobs of the president is to help people reconcile and to move forward, united. One of the most hurtful things I can hear is, you know, Bush doesn't care about African-Americans. First of all, it's not true. And secondly, I am -- I believe that -- you know, obviously I've got to do a better job of communicating, I guess, to certain folks. Because my job is to say to people, we're all equally American, and the American opportunity applies to you just as much as somebody else. And so I will continue to do my best to reach out."
Advice to the President: Don't bother.
It's futile to "reach out" to people who are slapping away your hands, who are convinced that your administration, and you yourself, are engaged in genocidal conspiracies against them, and who have so far departed from standards of rational discourse that they cannot be convinced otherwise.
Evidence that this is indeed the state of mind of many African Americans, and specifically of victims of Hurricane Katrina, came earlier this month at a special congressional hearing called by Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.). It was perhaps the most ludicrous performance by a panel of witnesses ever entered into the Congressional Record; it made the finger-pointing blather of the baseball steroid hearings seem like a Lincoln-Douglas debate. Yet it passed with nary a word of public outrage. On the contrary, the night of the spectacle, ABC anchor Elizabeth Vargas asserted with a straight face that the witnesses "were brought in front of Congress today so that the voiceless could be heard." NBC anchor Brian Williams solemnly intoned that "a special House committee heard emotional testimony from Katrina survivors who insisted racism was a big factor in the government's slow response to the disaster." And CBS anchor Bob Schieffer spat in the face of honest reportage, singling out the most embarrassing of all the witnesses, a rambling, ranting piece of work named Dyan "Mama D" French, and insisting, "Congress isn't likely to forget her. She gave them an earful today."
But an earful of what?
"We ain't going nowhere," Mama D told Congress. "Roaches and black folks, they've been trying to exterminate, eliminate us. We still there. We plan to be there."
She was just getting warmed up.
"I was on my front porch," Mama D declared. "I have witnesses that they bombed the walls of the levee."
When Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) began questioning her on the specifics of the allegation -- whether she'd witnessed the bombing herself, how far she lived from the levee -- and reminded her that she was under oath, Mama D switched into full soothsaying mode, her voice rising and falling like a Shakespearian crone, her sentences incoherent but rife with dire warning, her eyes intermittently focused:
"Mister, I don't know what you're talking about. I'm 62, and I have to talk the way I talk. I'm Phi Beta Kappa too. But I have to talk the way I talk. There was a military person in my house, somebody who served his country well. When we started looking at the -- BOOM! BOOM! Mister, I'll never forget it. He said, 'Mama D, that was a bomb.'"
But Shays persisted: "Can you see the levee from your house?"
"I haven't looked for it. I'm still looking for dead people."
"Can you see the levee from your house?
"Are you familiar with New Orleans?"
"So far I've asked you two questions and you've been very unresponsive."
"I don't know what you're calling unresponsive. Can I see? No I can't see you. I wear glasses. And I can't afford to buy any. I heard."
"All we need are honest answers."
"That is honest. I have no reason to lie to you. Who are you, Mr. Shays? What have you done for me? I'm sitting up here, now, I don't know where I'm going to be tomorrow. Why would I have to sit here and lie to you? Let's get honest about it."
When Shays pointed out that she still hadn't answered his questions, Mama D became indignant: "You can't sit there and do that, Mister. I'm 60, and even if I wasn't in America, I wouldn't sit there and let you do that. I answered you. And my answers are still the same. You got all the powers in your hand. I had to take a bath when I got to Washington, or unless it would have been in cold water. I'm 60 years old!"
To be fair, Mama D is likely a kind and decent soul; according to news reports, she opened her house to flood victims. But generosity doesn't equate with rationality, and the fact that she's roughly the same age as Mick Jagger doesn't confer wisdom:
"Please, give us some response. We don't need the rhetoric. Hubert Humphrey Institute said approximately 40 years ago that African American children commit no more crime than any other ethnic group. And 40 years later we're looking at an incarceration of almost 100 percent of young African American males. We need to get on the right page here. Let me have all my babies. They're working in the jails free. Just let me have 'em...and my mentally ill children and adults. They're hard workers. We can do more in New Orleans than any group that you have there. Police brutality? We're used to that. We got to do something about that too. Us as citizens. We got to remember that from the sixties. You can't make rules that oppress some of your people. All of us got to be full Americans. And we don't need to get violent about it. That's just human nature."
IF MAMA D WAS THE SHINING star of the proceedings, the supporting players followed her lead in their defiance of logic. Sitting beside her was Leah Hodges, an overwrought, dreadlocked "community activist" who seemed to channel the spirit of Angela Davis. In her opening statement, Hodges repeatedly referred to a crowd of evacuees stranded for several days on the high ground of a causeway as a "concentration camp" -- a characterization which caught the attention of Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), who respectfully noted that, as bad as conditions were, "Not a single person was marched into a gas chamber and killed." But Hodges was adamant. "I'm going to call it what it is," she said. "That is the only thing I could compare what we went through to."
It was Hodges who, later in her prepared statement, trotted out the most formulaic agitprop: "We have been exposed to genocide by ethnic cleansing, the rights of our children have been violated. Women's rights against discrimination, our economic, social and cultural rights have been violated. Our human rights have been violated. Our rights against torture have been violated. Our rights as prisoners of war within the scope and jurisdiction of the Geneva Accords have been violated. Migrant worker rights have been violated. These and all other violations both expressed and implied arise directly from the failure of the United States government to eliminate apartheid practices and all other forms of oppressive government practices against poor and working poor citizens of the United States, who are mostly African American or otherwise people of color."
At least she left out "Free Mumia!"
Evacuee Patricia Thompson, sitting beside Hodges, testified, "When we stepped outside, guns were pointed on us. I felt like we were being told to go outside in order to be killed." Thompson claimed that soldiers trained their machine guns' laser sights on the forehead of her five-year old granddaughter. When Rep. Shays said he found that hard to believe, she replied, "You believe what you want."
"No one's going to tell me it wasn't a race issue," Thompson concluded.
That, in a nutshell, is the problem.
As McKinney declared, "Racism is something we don't like to talk about, but we have to acknowledge it. And the world saw the effects of American-style racism in the drama as it was outplayed by the Katrina survivors."
Except racism is something that McKinney and her ilk love to talk about, can't stop talking about. They call congressional hearings for no other purpose than to talk about it. And as the Katrina hearing illustrated, when black people make claims about racism -- no matter how irresponsible, no matter how unsupportable, no matter how farfetched -- they're not expected to meet even the most rudimentary standards of logic and evidence. Not even if they're under oath. (Ironically, a sure sign of racism is the failure to hold people superficially different from you to your own intellectual and moral standards; in that sense, the entire mainstream media which let pass the Katrina testimony without pointing out its foolishness is indeed guilty of racism.) The federal government's response to the Katrina disaster did not prove racism -- except in the minds of people who need no proof, who've already made up their minds, who will not listen to reason... and who regard the expectation of reason by their listeners -- as Reps. Shays and Miller discovered -- as a personal affront.
President Bush would do well to study the Katrina testimony before he tries to "reach out" and "do a better job of communicating." It may not be worth the effort.
Mark Goldblatt (Mgold57@aol.com) is the author of Africa Speaks, a satire of black urban culture.
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