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Surf Report

Every so often, a channel switch acts as a cosmically trenchant edit. Last week I caught PBS’s repeat of Fatal Flood, an American Experience documentary from 2001 about the devastating Mississippi flood of 1927. Among the program’s blistering details about the fate of the thousands of displaced African-Americans in Greenville, Mississippi, was the fact that after being herded onto narrow levees to bide their time, they were then forced into labor to help distribute relief supplies to the region, then making do with whatever was left after whites took their pick. When one black laborer, resting at home after an 18-hour work stretch, was commanded by a patrolling National Guardsman to get back to the levee to work, he refused and was shot dead. Even more shocking, however, was Will Percy — the head of the local relief effort and a wealthy plantation owner’s son — publicly accusing an outraged black community at a church meeting that their laziness and indolence were responsible. “The murderer is you. Your hands are dripping with blood.” At the end of the program, I flipped over to Real Time With Bill Maher, and there was American Enterprise Institute fellow James K. Glassman spewing the same abhorrent right-wing spin about how the lack of evacuation from poor areas of New Orleans was voluntary, and that the looting — “I don’t care what their race is,” he made sure to say, which of course meant we were supposed to care — was a major problem. And while Maher was quick to bat away Glassman’s remark, I couldn’t help but think that 78 years later, with one click of the remote, nothing had changed. It was a truly dispiriting moment.

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