To be sure, I possess no bleeding heart, and with my many conservative political positions, I am certainly no liberal. Rather, my affinity with the black community stems from my being a man of faith. My foremost belief is that we are all G-d's children, that we are all equally loved by our Father in heaven, that every human life is of infinite value, and that the best demonstration of that fact is to look at every human being as our brother and sister, however different.
Indeed, I fervently believe that most people of faith-whatever their faith tradition-affirm the infinite preciousness of all human life. But in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, I have glimpsed reactions from self-professed people of faith that call this assumption into question.
Six weeks ago, I drove my children through the broken and crumbling African-American neighborhoods of east New Orleans in search of the Chalmette battlefield where on Jan. 8, 1815, Andrew Jackson delivered the greatest blow that the Americans ever inflicted upon the British. Seeing these communities was sobering but nothing new. I had seen similar poverty in black neighborhoods all across America. These blighted neighborhoods condemned many of their residents to a life bereft of dignity. The white response to the distress of black neighborhoods is often not one of concern, but one of fear and denial. They are simply terrified of walking or even driving through them. Or they pretend that such inequality no longer exists.
Hurricane Katrina, of course, inundated these poor, black neighborhoods and awakened many white Americans to the plight of the people who lived in them. Seeing black Americans living on freeways and struggling to survive, because many had no means by which to evacuate the city, galvanized white concern more than at any other time since the civil-rights movement. And while I do not believe that the federal government intentionally stalled rescue efforts because most of the trapped Orleanians were black, there is no question that if Beverly Hills had been hit by a similar catastrophe, the response would have been much quicker and more comprehensive.
It was for this reason that I decided to use my daily radio show on KUTR, a Mormon-owned station in Salt Lake City to try to assist African-American evacuees who had been moved to Camp Williams, in Bluffdale, Utah, in finding permanent local housing. I hosted as a guest on my show Zachary Smith, whose home was decimated by Hurricane Katrina. He and his family lived on Interstate 10 for four days before being evacuated with approximately 1,000 other, mostly African-American, survivors. Zachary indicated that although he and the other evacuees had been treated with great warmth by the Utah authorities, he was aggravated by the 10:30 p.m. curfew, and said that the curfew made the evacuees feel like they were "in prison." Could it be that the curfew had something to do with the overwhelmingly white population of Utah feeling uncomfortable with African-American faces, roaming their streets at night, Zachary wondered? Were they truly welcome?
I assured Zachary that the mostly Mormon families of Utah were warm and charitable people, incredibly generous, without a prejudiced bone in their bodies. In an effort to find permanent accommodation for the many homeless families, I asked Zachary whether some of the African-American families might wish to stay permanently in Utah rather than return to New Orleans. He indicated that many of the families would love to exercise that option, should they be welcomed into the state.
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I asked my listeners to attend the gathering, to call the program to invite evacuees to their own homes, and to volunteer their time to show the displaced families local neighborhoods so that the evacuees could decide whether they would like to permanently relocate. The response was overwhelmingly positive: The station's phones rang off the hook. Although one listener called in and said that he did not want poor, black families moving into his neighborhood because they were dirty and kept their own neighborhoods slovenly, every other caller condemned this bigotry and offered to help the families find permanent homes in Utah.
One woman invited Zachary and his family to her home for a barbeque. Another Mormon woman offered to take Zachary and his family to a Brigham Young University football game the next day, and made good on her promise. Most important, a real estate agent, who said she was an expert at getting through the red tape necessary to be domiciled in Utah, said she would volunteer her time to assist the families in the housing process.
The show generated more phone calls than any in my program's history, and many people said they would be attending my event on Wednesday night, at which the evacuee families of Fort Williams would meet the mostly Mormon families of Utah, and for which I would be flying in to Utah.
What happened next shocked me to my core. Rod Arquette, Salt Lake Radio Group's vice president for news and programming, sent me an e-mail message on the Jewish Sabbath (I retrieved it when the Sabbath concluded) ordering me not to come to Utah. He further left an aggressive message on my answering machine, saying that although he understood that I could not speak on the telephone on the Sabbath, he wanted me to know that under no circumstances was I to come to Utah. After the Sabbath concluded, he told me by phone that my radio show was being cancelled, saying that I had organized an event for the refugee families on Wednesday without the station's prior approval.
I was dumbstruck. How could a station cancel its most popular show simply because the host tried to use the airwaves to help poor, black families who had lost everything in Hurricane Katrina to find a permanent home? And how could a church-owned broadcaster like Bonneville take this decision in light of how much the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had admirably done to redress its refusal to allow blacks into the priesthood until 1978?
Just a few days before, Arquette had sent a new contract to my agent saying that he considered me one of the station's most vital assets. Two weeks earlier, after I had attempted to stop doing my program on KUTR because of a new TV show that I was to host for The Learning Channel, Arquette refused to allow me to do so, saying that I was one of the most interesting voices he had ever heard on the air. Was he now canning the show because I had tried to assist black people live in white Utah? And even if Bonneville wanted to end the show, could the company not have waited three more days so that we could do an event that helped homeless people find a home?
In the past few days, I have heard radio hosts, even in the New York area where I live, react viscerally to the suggestion that low-income African-American families fleeing from Katrina be granted permanent housing in the white, middle-class neighborhoods to which they have been evacuated. Indeed, white flight from black families moving into their neighborhoods is a well-known and unfortunate phenomenon. I therefore wanted to use my radio program to urge my listeners to rise to the moral high ground, look beyond skin color, and reach out to their fellow Americans in their hour of greatest need.
To cancel a show because the radio host used his platform to help poor and homeless African-American families relocate permanently to Utah is a tragedy for an otherwise glorious church that does so much to help so many all over the world. I shall continue to be a great admirer of Mormons and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, because I know that the big-hearted and incredibly generous Mormon laity would never support this shameful decision which I shall forever regard as a decision taken by an individual rather than an organization. To be sure, I have no argument with Rod Arquette, and mention him more to absolve the Mormon Church rather than to indict an individual. Still, I write these lines because of the need to fight bigotry and racial prejudice, even if it means sometimes having to be critical of others. The Utahns who, with their actions and their phone calls, demonstrated their belief that regardless of skin color, we are all equally G-d's children, and are responsible for each other's welfare, are the real Mormons who embrace the church's message of love, generosity, and openness.
There is a happy ending to this story. Hundreds of listeners, upon hearing the radio show had been cancelled, rallied to keep the event for the evacuees on, as planned. They came with me to Camp Williams, just outside Salt Lake City, met with the many evacuees, extended a personal invitation for them to join us, and this special event is scheduled to go ahead, G-d willing, on September 14, at 7 p.m. Many of evacuees will be telling their stories, and local leaders are expected to attend.