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Stupid White Tricks 

It's often embarrassing to be a middle-class Caucasian in San Francisco. Last week it was excruciating.

Wednesday, Sep 14 2005
If you've ever wandered past a New Age healing seminar, a UFO convention, or a blocks-long line for a Steve Jobs speech, you understand how embarrassing it can sometimes be to identify as a Northern California, middle-class white person. Last week in San Francisco it was mortifying.

Cringe-provoking news came from all directions.

First there was San Francisco Chronicle Internet columnist Mark Morford's strange explanation for his employer's decision to maintain a small city-size newsroom at Nevada's Burning Man festival while covering Hurricane Katrina's aftermath mostly via wire service reports.

In an apparent exercise in the recouping of sunken costs, the Chron kept six reporters, three photographers, a videographer, and who knows who else at a nudie dopefest near Reno while American history was unfolding on the Gulf Coast. This was one of those daily-newspaper anniversary-package deals -- Burning Man's been around 20 years -- that Chron shirts seemed to have been planning for months. Burning Man is a Nevada desert art festival in which project managers play at being free-love hippies for a week; the BM series exuded the smell of a newsroom management scheme to better reach out to a young, white readership.

The paper's brass apparently was unaware -- or didn't care -- that the Katrina disaster may as well have been a local story for many Chronicle readers. An important portion of Bay Area families has deep roots in the region hit by the hurricane, thanks to the World War II economic migration of African-American workers from the Gulf Coast during this area's 1940s shipbuilding boom. Many Bay Area residents watched Katrina reports seeking news about their relatives' neighborhoods.

Unfolding events on the Gulf Coast, however, somehow failed to alter the course of the Chronicle's awful journalistic storm.

The paper's news columns kept filling with weirdly out-of-touch reports about Burning Man, while the paper covered the early, unfolding Katrina tragedy with one or two on-the-ground reporters, Associated Press and New York Times syndicate copy, and staff stories with headlines such as "Web Records Wild Interest in Katrina" and Burning Man "Festival-goers Unaware of Destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina."

Morford, who had until lately appeared only on the paper's Internet site, was featured in the actual newsprint version of the Chronicle last Wednesday to defend his bosses' judgment.

"We need this sort of 'trifling' Burning Man fluff more than ever, to act as spark, as beacon, as counterbalance," the columnist explained. "See, Burning Man is the place where perspective is most fluxive and liquid. It is the place, maybe, where you can best try to understand the place of the human animal in the grand scheme."

It pains me to say that this perspective -- that picking one's ass is an appropriate and aggressive response to national catastrophe -- is one my white brethren identify with quite comfortably.

I just wish they wouldn't say so in public.

As if the Burning Man series wasn't discomforting enough, San Francisco suffered another white-conceit spectacle last week in which our local leftists hounded out of office the city's corruption-busting, test score-improving school superintendent, Arlene Ackerman.

White parents have abandoned public schools to the point that Caucasians constitute half the city population but only 9 percent of the public-school student body.

So when the extreme-left Green Party identified the school board as a place to try out its destructive version of experimental politics, there was none of the citywide outrage one might have found in cities where everyone has a stake in the schools' quality. The verdant leftists slammed Ackerman for "focusing on" -- ergo, elevating -- student test scores. They attacked her for overhauling and improving ghetto schools. They tut-tutted at Ackerman's record of rooting out a band of larcenists who had infiltrated school management and setting up accounting systems that would help end the S.F. school district tradition of criminality.

Yet Green Party members and other self-described progressives saw Ackerman's corruption-busting as trivial compared with her failure to open the schools to "public input" and "democratic processes" -- ergo, public meetings that run until 5 a.m. and produce feel-good resolutions that have no real policy effect.

These Green Party attacks were absorbed by greater San Francisco as entertaining political theater, rather than what they really were -- an assault on the future of the city's young.

Ackerman quit last week, saying she was sick of the hectoring. City leftists began floating a white politician as her replacement. He has no administrative experience beyond running the aforementioned type of endless meeting at the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

Black civic leaders, meanwhile, were livid that a nationally famous African-American public administrator found her Waterloo in San Francisco. As well they should have been.

Finally, there was the absurd-seeming yet sadly telling public debate that broke out over the city's decision to offer public housing units in San Francisco to the poorest of Hurricane Katrina's victims.

Last week, the San Francisco Housing Authority Commission passed a resolution that will put 100 victims of the Gulf Coast hurricane at the top of our city's public housing list.

To me it seemed as if the measure would have been controversial for straightforward reasons. Some 28,000 poor people are on waiting lists for S.F. subsidized housing; there are about 600 openings per year. This creates the theoretical possibility of a 46-year wait for public housing. Placing Katrina victims at the head of the line for public housing would have lengthened the already absurd wait San Francisco citizens must endure.

That issue, however, didn't come up at last week's meeting.

Instead, the measure to house Katrina victims here was criticized as providing insufficient succor to potential refugee guests. How can we be so cruel as to house them there, doubters of the policy essentially said; that's where we oppress our own African-American poor.

If you think that argument sounds silly, consider this: San Francisco public housing projects happen to be deadly shooting galleries where known killers continue killing with relative impunity. Our Police Department remains one of the most dysfunctional in the country, with an abysmal record of solving murders.

The mayor's PR office has managed to downplay this continuing phenomenon with rolled-sleeve mayoral appearances near murderous housing projects. Creating the impression that the city was focusing its resources on the problem, even though little actual policy change had occurred, wasn't hard; residents of the city's wealthier areas have never paid much mind to the problem of poor people shooting one another in their own neighborhoods anyway.

Many of San Francisco's ghetto-shooting victims were friends with one another. Some of them have criminal records. Much of the carnage, therefore, remains within a single extended social circle, one that most San Franciscans won't ever touch, unless they happen to belong to a victim's extended family, are members of those families' churches, are friends with aggrieved churchgoers -- or happen to live in public housing near the killing sites and fear for their own lives.

This type of fear creates the kind of stress that nobody should wish upon traumatized guests, skeptics of the Hurricane Katrina housing proposal said. "We need to make sure we are not bringing people from the frying pan to the skillet," said Housing Authority Commissioner Amos Brown during a Thursday meeting. "There will be additional trauma to what they are now experiencing, such as guns being fired at the wee hours of the morning, as we have in some of our units. This pattern of death -- some may say they had this in New Orleans. If they did have this in New Orleans, it's still wrong."

Most of the time, Amos Brown is dismissible as a grandstanding blowhard. But he had a perverse point this time around.

It's certainly nonsense to say refugees from New Orleans housing projects might blanch at life in our own public slums. San Francisco's crime rate is nothing compared to what theirs used to be.

But this bit of blowhard grandstanding resonated last week because it contained more than a bit of truth-telling that was embarrassing for us all. Certain areas of this city, home in large part to poor African-Americans, are plagued by an ongoing killing spree that our city for the most part manages to ignore. That this issue would re-enter the public mind only because the city is preparing to house traumatized, poor Gulf Coast guests -- well, that's what you might call an awkward situation.

It's enough to make a white person want to go hide -- at a renaissance fair, perhaps, or maybe next to a tiny table spread with wine and crackers at the San Francisco Chronicle's "Opera in the Park," or, perchance, watching Friends reruns with some Green Party pals.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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