Excellent piece by Jeremiah Goulkain Tomgram:
I might still have stuck it out as a frustrated liberal Republican, knowing that the wealthy business core of the party still pulled a few strings and people like Richard Lugar and Olympia Snowe remained in the Senate — if only because the idea of voting for Democrats by choice made me feel uncomfortable. (It would have been so… gauche.) Then came Hurricane Katrina. In New Orleans, I learned that it wasn’t just the Bush administration that was flawed but my worldview itself.
I had fallen in love with New Orleans during a post-law-school year spent in Louisiana clerking for a federal judge, and the Bush administration’s callous (non-)response to the storm broke my heart. I wanted to help out, but I didn’t fly helicopters or know how to do anything useful in a disaster, so just I sat glued to the coverage and fumed — until FEMA asked federal employees to volunteer to help. I jumped at the chance.
Soon, I was involved with a task force trying to rebuild (and reform) the city’s criminal justice system. Growing up hating racism, I was appalled but not very surprised to find overt racism and the obvious use of racist code words by officials in the Deep South.
Then something tiny happened that pried open my eyes to the less obvious forms of racism and the hurdles the poor face when they try to climb the economic ladder. It happened on an official visit to a school in a suburb of New Orleans that served kids who had gotten kicked out of every other school around. I was investigating what types of services were available to the young people who were showing up in juvenile hall and seemed to be headed toward the proverbial life of crime.
My tour guide mentioned that parents were required to participate in some school programs. One of these was a field trip to a sit-down restaurant.
This stopped me in my tracks. I thought: What kind of a lame field trip is that?
It turned out that none of the families had ever been to a sit-down restaurant before. The teachers had to instruct parents and students alike how to order off a menu, how to calculate the tip.
I was stunned.
That night, I told my roommates about the crazy thing I had heard that day. Apparently there were people out there who had never been to something as basic as a real restaurant. Who knew?
One of my roommates wasn’t surprised. He worked at a local bank branch that required two forms of ID to open an account. Lots of people came in who had only one or none at all.
I was flooded with questions: There are adults who have no ID? And no bank accounts? Who are these people? How do they vote? How do they live? Is there an entire off-the-grid alternate universe out there?
From then on, I started to notice a lot more reality. I noticed that the criminal justice system treats minorities differently in subtle as well as not-so-subtle ways, and that many of the people who were getting swept up by the system came from this underclass that I knew so little about. Lingering for months in lock-up for misdemeanors, getting pressed against the hood and frisked during routine traffic stops, being pulled over in white neighborhoods for “driving while black”: these are things that never happen to people in my world. Not having experienced it, I had always assumed that government force was only used against guilty people. (Maybe that’s why we middle-class white people collectively freak out at TSA airport pat-downs.)
I dove into the research literature to try to figure out what was going on. It turned out that everything I was “discovering” had been hiding in plain sight and had been named: aversive racism, institutional racism, disparate impact and disparate treatment, structural poverty, neighborhood redlining, the “trial tax,” the “poverty tax,” and on and on. Having grown up obsessed with race (welfare and affirmative action were our bête noires), I wondered why I had never heard of any of these concepts.
Great piece, read the rest.