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The views and opinions expressed on this site and blog posts (excluding comments on blog posts left by others) are entirely my own and do not represent those of any employer or organization with whom I am currently or previously have been associated.

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Behind the Headlines: APA News Blog

Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.

Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.

September 3, 2007

Written by C.N.

The Root Causes of Racial Tensions

In an earlier post entitled “The Downside of Diversity,” I wrote about a recent study that concluded that all other things being equal, cities that have higher levels of racial/ethnic diversity also have lower rates of civic participation, trust among residents, and other measures of “social capital.”

I argued that perhaps one of the reasons for this surprising finding is that external stressors such as the Iraq War, economic uncertainty, environmental degradation, diminished individual liberties, humanitarian crises around the world, to name just a few, set up a political climate and social framework that have made Americans more fearful, uncertain, pessimistic, defensive, and/or distrustful of many things, not just increasing racial/ethnic diversity.

As further example of that, I refer to an article in Time Magazine that marks the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation on New Orleans, by describing how, in the context of trying to rebuild the city, racial tensions between Black and White residents unfortunately are at an all-time high:

City council meetings have devolved into shouting matches. Local crime stories on the New Orleans Times-Picayune’s web site, which allows readers to post comments, are inevitably followed by a string of missives reeking of barely disguised racial hostility, calling for citizens to arm themselves against the “thugs” responsible for the city’s sky-high murder rate.

And a string of guilty pleas from corrupt city officials . . . has elicited charges that white prosecutors are motivated by race; even the somewhat staid Louisiana Weekly, an 80-year-old newspaper targeted to African-American readers, recently ran an op-ed piece claiming the U.S. Attorney’s Office was abetting a white power grab. . . .

Hill points out that in times of crisis . . . ethnic groups tend to circle the wagons. “When people’s basic psychological needs, and physical needs — security, food and sustenance, health care — are not being met . . . there’s a tendency to fall back on ethnic group identity,” he says. “[B]both whites and African-Americans have fallen back on their ethnic group identity to fulfill their basic needs.”. . .

But the underlying cause of racial tension . . . lies in a string of broken promises that predate Hurricane Katrina, says Ronald Chisom, executive director of the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, a collective of community organizations based in New Orleans. “This disaster has just compounded what we’ve dealt with for years,” Chisom says.

Before the storm, poor schools, inadequate health care, low wages, high unemployment and substandard housing were the norm for a vast number of New Orleanians, especially poor blacks; since Katrina, Chisom says, those problems have intensified.

This article is a perfect illustration of how external political, economic, and demographic issues are often at the heart of racial/ethnic tensions in a particular city. In other words, it is not necessarily the level of racial/ethnic diversity that is the problem per se.

Rather, as this article highlights, it is the frustrations people feel due to systematic political neglect and economic insecurity that often drive racial/ethnic tensions. In other words, this is the political climate and social framework that, I believe, eventually makes people turn against racial diversity as the most convenient scapegoat for their frustrations.

In that sense, New Orleans is just a microcosm of the American society and the multidimensional nature of American race relations.


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Copyright © 2001- by C.N. Le. Some rights reserved. Creative Commons License

Suggested reference: Le, C.N. . "The Root Causes of Racial Tensions" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <http://www.asian-nation.org/headlines/2007/09/the-root-causes-of-racial-tensions/> ().

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