Clearly our current spirit of neopatriotism cannot vanquish the old bogyman of racism in America. In fact, it seems that the swelling nationalism is shaping up to be a kind of mask for what many of us know is still a deep-rooted problem in America–the marginalization of poor people and people of color. In the months since the September 11 attacks, for the most part Americans have supported the government's military efforts to hunt down and eradicate those believed to be responsible. But following the recent deaths of two black postal workers who apparently inhaled anthrax while working in mail centers in the Washington, DC, area, it's hard to ignore the possibility that it didn't occur to some government officials that these workers' lives were worth protecting. Tom Ridge, Secretary of Homeland Security, and Tommy Thompson, Secretary of Health and Human Services, obviously didn't sit around and hatch a scheme to put postal workers in danger. Yet the way the October anthrax scare played out–or rather the government's response to it–makes it clear that high-level officials failed to protect the well-being of thousands of government workers, who are mostly black. This failure sprang, in all likelihood, from a cultural-awareness shortcoming closely tied to the new face of racism in America–what I call the "can't we all just get along and live in a colorblind society" brand of early-twenty-first-century racial denial.
For once, this shortcoming did not go completely unnoticed. But the media's performance has been bittersweet. On one hand, the press was quick to cover the immense contradictions in the government's response to anthrax outbreaks–i.e., the fact that workers on Capitol Hill were immediately evacuated, tested for anthrax and given weekslong supplies of Cipro, while postal workers weren't told of the high level of risk they operated under, weren't tested once the anthrax was found in their midst and were given only short-term doses of the drug. But most stories stopped short of pinpointing the full implications of this official oversight and failed to interview local activists or politicians who might have called it for what it was. But the earliest stories did let the postal workers' anger speak for itself.
One of the more telling quotes in this regard came in an October 25 New York Times story: "So far I don't see any baseball caps for postal workers like everyone's wearing for the firemen and police lost in New York," said Patricia Johnson, a veteran mail carrier and union president for workers in the facility where the two dead workers are believed to have contracted pulmonary anthrax. "No one's starting a fund for the families of the two postal workers," Johnson noted.
Also uncovered was the possibility that the government's slow response in protecting and treating the postal workers is feeding into longstanding fears held by many blacks about the government's healthcare services. The Tuskegee syphilis experiment, in which hundreds of black men were denied treatment for sexually transmitted diseases so the government could study the progress of the illness, is one of the better-known cases in which the medical establishment authorized or tacitly approved the abuse or neglect of blacks. The sad truth is that millions of African-Americans remain skeptical about government health programs and even private healthcare systems. I found the concerns of one DC postal worker especially poignant: "I feel like I'm an experiment," 27-year-old Darryl Jones told the Times.
In that same story, reporter Katharine Seelye described the anger, fear and frustration of hundreds of postal workers who showed up at DC General Hospital to receive doses of Cipro. "Workers were most baffled about why the government was handing out Cipro without determining whether anyone had symptoms, since the White House has said it would be counterproductive for people to take antibiotics if they have had no contact with anthrax…. No officials addressed the workers [gathered] outside the hospital." Yet, when Postmaster General John "Jack" Potter held a press conference, after announcing that the two workers had died of anthrax, his big plea was for calm. "This is not a situation where America should be pointing fingers at anyone else other than the terrorists," the postmaster said in an October 23 Washington Post story. His comments were a clear effort to diffuse black postal workers' complaints that they had been shafted. But for me, Potter's comments simply raised new fears that all the psychic energy we are expending on this war effort, and all the material sacrifices we are being called upon to make, will be particularly burdensome for a people who for centuries have given their all with little help or return from our government.