White Racism in New Orleans

A.C. Thompson, writing at The Nation, has a new piece about white racism in New Orleans that’s worth reading in full for what it tells us about how seriously we take racism in this country (h/t Paul via Brainstorms).

I grew up spending many of my summers in New Orleans329-705 (Creative Commons License photo credit: pwbaker )
with cousins who lived there.  Partly because of that, I’ve always thought of it as a sort of second home town.  I would spend a summer there and come back home with a Southern Louisiana accent, dropping my g’s until they were completely gone and saying Nawlins just like my cousins did.  My uncle, my mother’s older brother, owned a tiny corner store in the heart of a predominantly black neighborhood in the crescent city.  Their family of five kids lived in in the white, working-class suburb of Slidell.   As a young man, my uncle had moved to New Orleans from Texas to be a musician.  He could play just about any instrument, but was probably best at playing clarinet in various Dixie Land jazz bands  (when I started band in junior high school I inherited his tenor sax).   My uncle was also a racist.   Some of my earliest memories are of hearing him and the other adults talk about the “thieving” black people (not their term) who were the main customers of his little store.  And, I also remember quite clearly the way that my other relatives viewed my uncle as a victim of that neighborhood because he was white.  At some point, he bought a gun “for protection.”   Although that was all many years before the natural and human-created disaster that has become known simply as Katrina, the kind of racism that I witnessed as a child seems to persist according to Thompson’s report.

What Thompson found in the course of an extensive eighteen-month investigation is disturbing not only for what it reveals about New Orleans in the days after the storm when the city fractured along racial fault lines, but also for what it says about the country as a whole.

If you followed the news closely following Hurricane Katrina (as Joe and I both wrote about here and elsewhere), or if you saw Spike Lee’s film, When the Levees Broke, you’ll recall the horrific story of Donnell Herrington, who was shot by whites.    Thompson recounts the story this way:

The way Donnell Herrington tells it, there was no warning. One second he was trudging through the heat. The next he was lying prostrate on the pavement, his life spilling out of a hole in his throat, his body racked with pain, his vision blurred and distorted.

It was September 1, 2005, some three days after Hurricane Katrina crashed into New Orleans, and somebody had just blasted Herrington, who is African-American, with a shotgun. “I just hit the ground. I didn’t even know what happened,” recalls Herrington, a burly 32-year-old with a soft drawl.

Herrington shouted at the other men to run and turned to face his attackers: three armed white males. Herrington says he hadn’t even seen the men or their weapons before the shooting began. As Alexander and Collins fled, Herrington ran in the opposite direction, his hand pressed to the bleeding wound on his throat. Behind him, he says, the gunmen yelled, “Get him! Get that nigger!”

This happened in the U.S. in 2005.  And yet, no one has been brought to justice.   Here’s Thompson again:

So far, their crimes have gone unpunished. No one was ever arrested for shooting Herrington, Alexander and Collins–in fact, there was never an investigation. I found this story repeated over and over during my days in New Orleans. As a reporter who has spent more than a decade covering crime, I was startled to meet so many people with so much detailed information about potentially serious offenses, none of whom had ever been interviewed by police detectives.

Not only have the shooters of Herrington never been prosecuted, but Thompson’s investigation revealed far more about a broader pattern of violence:

…evidence indicates, at least eleven people were shot. In each case the targets were African-American men, while the shooters, it appears, were all white.

The evidence that Thompson uncovered supports Joe’s concept of the white racial frame.   Here’s Thompson again:

The new information should reframe our understanding of the catastrophe. Immediately after the storm, the media portrayed African-Americans as looters and thugs–Mayor Ray Nagin, for example, told Oprah Winfrey that “hundreds of gang members” were marauding through the Superdome. Now it’s clear that some of the most serious crimes committed during that time were the work of gun-toting white males.[emphasis added]

And, there’s still very little interest in prosecuting those whites.  The fact that there are gun-toting whites indiscriminately killing black citizens may sound like something out of a previous era, but this is the contemporary U.S.   My uncle could easily have been one of those gun-toting whites, propelled toward violence out of his own misplaced sense of victimhood.  Instead, my uncle ended up turning that rage inward and the gun on himself.   The white racial frame obscures our understanding of racism and clouds the realities of white male privilege, and the twin afflictions of rage and victimhood when that privilege is challenged.

Comments

  1. Danielle

    Also, Color of Change emailed this out if you’d like to do something or spread the word:

    “You can help. Join us in calling on Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, Louisiana’s Attorney General Buddy Caldwell, and the U.S. Department of Justice to conduct a full investigation of these crimes and any police cover-up. It takes only a moment to add your voice and to invite your friends and family to do the same”:

    http://www.colorofchange.org/nation/?id=1608-621812

  2. The New Orleans One

    4.john Says:
    August 18th, 2009 at 1:05 am
    It is truly a shame – I would personally live in the forest with wild animals than white men in New Orleans – the worst place on the face of earth!

    How dare you mock the people of this city in that manner. You are undoubtedly completely uneducated about the populace of this magnificent city. Quite frankly, I wish you would move to the forest so one of the ‘wild animals’ there could cut that vicious tongue of yours out of you head so that you cannot spread these wretched lives. Vive La Nouvelle Orleans-The Most Beautiful Place in this boring country.

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