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CNN Exchange: Commentary

Obama's 'quiet riots' are for real

By Roland S. Martin
CNN contributor
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Editor's note: Roland S. Martin is a CNN contributor and a talk-show host for WVON-AM in Chicago.

(CNN) -- Conservative critics have been lighting up the airwaves and blogs for the last 48 hours after Sen. Barack Obama's speech to the Hampton University Annual Ministers' Conference raised the combustible topic of the burning anger among the nation's poor African-Americans.

Much of this was the result of a terrible story written by Bob Lewis of The Associated Press, who wrote in his lead that "Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama said Tuesday that the Bush administration has done nothing to defuse a 'quiet riot' among blacks that threatens to erupt just as riots in Los Angeles did 15 years ago."

After seeing the story I was stunned to read such a thing, and immediately sought the transcript of Obama's speech. In reading it, Obama used the word riot nine times; the phrase "quiet riot" three times; and never suggested that America was on the verge of seeing African-Americans lash out like they did during the Los Angeles riots in 1992.

But what he did try to do was give the 8,000 attendees, and anyone else watching, an understanding of what is a real problem in America's inner cities. And more importantly, his blueprint for fixing the problem.

"(Quiet riots) happen when a sense of disconnect settles in and hope dissipates," according to a written version of his speech. "Despair takes hold and young people all across this country look at the way the world is and believe that things are never going to get any better.

"You tell yourself, my school will always be second rate. You tell yourself, there will never be a good job waiting for me to excel at. You tell yourself, I will never be able to afford a place that I can be proud of and call my home.

"That despair quietly simmers and makes it impossible to build strong communities and neighborhoods. And then one afternoon a jury says, 'not guilty' -- or a hurricane hits New Orleans -- and that despair is revealed for the world to see."

We all saw what that looks like when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, and it was ugly and sad. Even worse was our government's response to the crisis.

But folks, this goes on every day. And we do a very good job of pretending that it doesn't matter.

Check out what often quoted conservative "thinker" Dinesh D'Souza had to say about this: "A quiet riot. Now certainly that's the best kind of riot, because no buildings get burned and nobody gets stampeded or knifed or shot. And if it's a really quiet riot, then we don't even have to listen to shouting and can continue to work or read or watch TV without disruption. It would really be nice if all riots could be quiet riots."

See, guys like D'Souza, who know nothing about the conditions of the nation's urban poor, want to sit in their ivory towers and pretend that if you just read, write and work hard, all will be well. And there is no doubt that the work ethic and willingness to do better is paramount, and encouraged -- even by African-Americans. But it's also critical to know that there are many who are working and working and working, and don't seem to be making any headway.

I don't sit in a think tank and write papers and books like D'Souza and these other wholly ignorant conservative bloggers. In fact, most of my time is spent at 1000 E. 87th St., in the heart of Chicago's South Side. That's the headquarters of WVON, where I host a morning talk show. When I ran the Dallas Weekly, it was on the South Side of Dallas on Martin Luther King Drive (Why is it that the black parts of town are always on the south side? Maybe because north means going up and south means going down).

And what Obama spoke of I see every day. I can look out our bay window and see men and women going to work each day, trying to make ends meet, and they often don't. I see women walking their kids to school just to keep them safe, but inevitably, some don't come home, like the 31 students from Chicago Public Schools who have been murdered this year. Oh, I definitely see the urban terrorists -- gang members and drug dealers -- who tear the fabric of the black community apart with their rampant violence.

People shouldn't have to endure "quiet riots." They should be shouting from the rooftops, and we should hear their pleas. See, if someone is stranded on a roof and the tides are rising, if they want to be rescued two things must happen: One, they must make themselves visible for the helicopter to see. Second, the helicopter must lower a line to help them up. The pilot can't hook up the belt and do all the work; the individual must be a willing participant.

Obama gave a voice to the voiceless. As he said, they must do their part. They must work hard to escape poverty by going to school, do a good job at work and not be involved in crime.

Let's not treat them as if they are nonexistent. If we remain quiet in the face of chronic conditions, shame on us for saying, "God bless America." Because we surely we are not being a blessing to our fellow Americans.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the writer. This is part of an occasional series of commentaries on CNN.com that offers a broad range of perspectives, thoughts and points of view.


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CNN contributor Roland Martin says when Barack Obama spoke of "quiet riots" he was trying to give an understanding of the problems in America's inner cities.

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