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Wake up, racism is not 'a thing of the past'

By Edmund W. Lewis
August 07, 2008

When did racism become a thing of the past?

When did white Americans have a convention and decide that they would no longer support, tolerate or benefit from a system of white supremacy that gives them advantages in virtually every aspect of life?

Nobody in a position of power and authority in New Orleans can seem to fathom why civil rights veteran Jerome Smith, founder of Tamborine & Fan, who was beaten to within an inch of his life by the hands of "the authority" during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, became enraged after the incident at Tremé Community Center involving an off-duty policewoman who pulled a gun on another parent in front of dozens of children.

But almost every Black person in America knows exactly what Jerome Smith meant when he said that cops never draw their guns or use profanity in front of the Jewish Community Center.

Anyone who knows anything about Jerome Smith knows that the cultural warrior is respectful of all cultures and races, having marched, fought and bled alongside people of every religion and color during the civil rights movement. When he made the comment about the Jewish Community Center, anyone with an ounce of sense knew that he meant that police know better than to display excessive violence, intimidation or profanity in affluent white communities.

Smith was understandably upset about an off-duty cop drawing a gun in front of dozens of young children and the fact that the 911 operator who answered the center's call for help was disrespectful.

Apparently, City Councilwoman Stacy Head couldn't grasp that point, instead describing Jerome Smith's recent remarks before the council as "hateful and racist." "It would be entirely inappropriate to continue funding" the Tremé Community Center, Ms. Head wrote in a memo to councilmembers and the mayor.

Ms. Head went on to say that she felt physically threatened by Smith's promise to take over a City Council meeting and unseat council members in a week, even though there is no factual evidence of Jerome Smith ever committing a violent act.

The councilwoman made it clear last week that she was willing to jeopardize the futures and safety of countless children in Tremé because she didn't like what Jerome Smith said and decided to flex her political muscle. After accusing the cops and elected officials of allowing this to happen to Black children, Smith needed to be reminded to stay in "his place."

Those who elected Stacy Head must be very proud.

What message does that send to the community? The only individuals and organizations that are worthy of the financial support of the city are those who tell local elected officials what they want to hear and avoid challenging any governmental actions or policies that may constitute racial or economic discrimination.

Apparently, Ms. Head believes that Jerome Smith spends his time indoctrinating youth in Tremé with racial hatred and disdain for elected officials. One can only imagine how many times she's visited the Tremé Community Center and seen for herself the remarkable work Jerome Smith and others dedicated to keeping alive the history and traditions of Black New Orleans are doing.

Not surprisingly, Ms. Head found some support in the local daily paper where one columnist accused Smith of not knowing that the struggle is over and all is well in the USA. The columnist also challenged Smith for uttering the R-word when the cops involved in the Tremé incident are both Black, but there is a long history of Black cops being used as instruments of racial oppression.

Similar dynamics were at work in antebellum times when Black overseers were sometimes harder on enslaved Africans than white overseers. Revolutionary hip-hop artist KRS-1 underscored this point and pointed out the historical connection between Black overseers and Black cops when he penned the alliterative lyrics:

"Officer, officer, officer, overseer."

The racial arrogance and cultural insularity displayed by the columnist are nothing new in New Orleans. Black people experience these kinds of attitudes often in New Orleans. Just last week my sister Anne expressed her frustration about many of the comments made on nola.com by white residents of the Greater New Orleans area. Anyone who has read the remarks left by some of these whites at the end of articles knows that the struggle for justice, equality and true democracy is far from over.

Despite having made many strides over the past 50 years, Black people still often find themselves at the mercy of hate-mongering whites, murderous cops, indifferent or blatantly racist elected officials and a criminal justice system that is anything but colorblind.

Whites who are offended by Jerome Smith's remarks about how cops treat Blacks differently than whites should pay closer attention to the news and try to walk a mile or a block on the boulevard in their Black neighbors' shoes.

Think about it. How often do you hear or read about white folks getting arrested for Driving While White, Shopping While White or simply Being White? When was the last time you heard about cops kicking down the door of an elderly white woman and shooting her to death? When was the last time you turned on the television and heard about a white man getting killed by police just hours before his wedding like Sean Bell did, or white men getting killed in a hail of 41 bullets for pulling out their wallets? When was the last time you turned on the evening news and heard about cops sodomizing a white man with a toilet plunger like they did Abner Louima?

Black people's experiences in America have taught us a little something about racial hatred and oppression.

We know what it feels like to know that we can be gunned down or arrested for no apparent reason and that police are not above planting drugs on a suspect if it suits their purposes. We also know, as John Singleton pointed out in the 1997 film Rosewood, that "nigger is just another word for guilty."

While CNN's "Black In America" documentary told some important stories, it did not delve deeply enough into what it is truly like to be Black in America and born under the shadow of racism.

Racism is a cancer that eats away at the minds, bodies and spirits of Black people and moves this nation closer to a total collapse. One can see that very well in the negative responses to presidential candidate Barack Obama, who may very well represent America's last chance to at least begin to make some steps in the right direction. Electing Obama obviously won't undo centuries of racial hatred and discrimination, but it would certainly give a segment of the population tangible evidence that this nation is no longer hell-bent on choosing self-destruction over positive change.

Before this nation can take major steps toward becoming the republic this nation's founders envisioned, it must first come to terms with racism and the damage racism has done to this nation and its inhabitants.

Racism means that elected officials can use key words like "deserving poor" to describe poor white people, the insinuation being that Black women who receive public assistance are "welfare queens," a phrase first used by former President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Meanwhile, very little has been said about the men in the Texas commune federal authorities raided earlier this year where men father children by eight or nine women. These men are legally married to one of the women and the other women and their children receive welfare assistance. If these families were Black, Fox News would be all over it.

Racism means that people can rightfully fall out and get upset about former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick abusing and killing dogs but say absolutely nothing about the horrific ordeal endured by Megan Williams, the Black woman in West Virginia who was kidnapped, tortured, raped and forced to eat human and animal feces by several white people, including a mother and her adult son.

Although I am neither a supporter nor a defender of state Sen. Derrick Shepherd, racism means that he can be harassed and degraded by the media and the criminal justice system while former President Bill Clinton and U.S. Senator David Vitter can carry on business as usual after media reports arise about their sexcapades.

Racism means that The New Yorker can get away with a racist depiction of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama and Michelle Obama because someone has to pull another "Willie Horton" tactic before November that will remind White America of its deep-seated fear of people of color and bring whites who support Obama to their senses. Racism means that Fox News can get away with calling the wife of Sen. Barack Obama "his baby mama" and cavalierly dismiss those who are offended by the slight.

Racism is chock full of double standards that allow some whites to criticize Blacks for celebrating Kwanzaa and Black History Month but say absolutely nothing when our German American, Italian American and Irish American brothers celebrate Oktoberfest, St. Joseph's Day and St. Patrick's Day respectively.

Racism means that white LSU fans attending the BCS championship game could feel very comfortable yucking it up and degrading Black public housing residents and poor people for the cameras, even as they prepared to scream and cheer like crazy for Black athletes like Glenn Dorsey, Early Doucet, Brandon LaFell and Keiland Williams. Racism means that white Jefferson Parish residents can feel good about burning the letters "KKK" into the lawn of a Black family even though these same residents dole out big bucks for New Orleans Saints jerseys and relentlessly claim their love for football players like Deuce McAllister, Reggie Bush, Will Smith, Mike McKenzie and Marques Colston.

Apparently, it's OK to love successful Black people who are recording artists, athletes, actors and celebrities because they are "more than Black," a point Spike Lee drove home in the 1989 film Do The Right Thing.

A little closer to home, racism means that Black people can be prevented by police - who are sworn to protect and serve - from crossing the Crescent City Connection over the Mississippi River to escape flooding and misery, and that unarmed Black people can be gunned down on the Danziger Bridge by cops who are later celebrated and defended as "heroes" by white residents after an attempt is made to bring them to justice. Racism means that a New Orleans judge can say that cops who mercilessly beat a retired Black educator did nothing wrong and that four white bouncers at a French Quarter establishment called Razzoo Bar & Patio can get away with murdering a Black college student named Levon "Bena" Jones. Racism means that a cop can think he did nothing wrong when he used a Taser gun nine times on a Black suspect in Winnfield, Louisiana this past January.

We're supposed to see all the things that are still being committed in the name of white supremacy and Manifest Destiny as par for the course and believe those who insist that racism is indeed prevalent is a figment of the Black man's imagination.

Things continue to fall apart as Blacks who speak out about white supremacy are vilified and many whites refuse to see or admit that racial enmity remains a major problem in America. We can't continue to ignore the problem and expect things to get better.

Mind you, 100 years from now, someone will read about the things taking place these days and wonder how white Americans could commit such shameful and hurtful acts. Some historians will invariably come to their defense, insisting that this was simply the way things were done back then and that in their minds' eye they were doing nothing wrong. Pretty much the same argument used to justify the enslavement, exploitation and lynching of countless African men, women and children centuries ago.

That argument doesn't fly now and it won't fly 100 years from now because there have always been brave Black and white voices clamoring for justice, democracy and equal protection under the law for all citizens of this republic.

We see all of these things and know in our hearts and minds that racism is by no means a thing of the past. Like Jerome Smith and the very fortunate children he teaches, nurtures and mentors at the Tremé Community Center, we are reminded of that sobering reality every minute of every hour of every day of our lives.

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