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Theresa Martinez likens racism to a smog in the air of the country.
The associate dean of undergraduate studies and associate professor of sociology at the University of Utah will be speaking on "Race, Class and Katrina" at The Forum for Questioning Minds from 2 to 3:30 p.m. Sunday at the Salt Lake City Library. Her appearance, which is free and open to the public, is sponsored by the Utah Humanities Council as part of their Rhodes Scholars program. The Forum for Questioning Minds is an independent, nonprofit educational organization.
"Katrina is one of the wake up calls we receive," said Martinez. "We receive them all the time, but sometimes we don't take heed.
Martinez feels many people in America are unaware of all the racial problems the country still faces today.
"A lot of times race and class issues are masked because people are living in inner cities and they're invisible," she said. "People can live in the suburbs and avoid that."
The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina exposed ongoing issues of race and class to the American public, according to Martinez.
"What really defined it for me was the racial divide in terms of who could get out and who had to stay," she said. "It was poor black people who had to stay. If you were poor and if you didn't have a car or the resources to leave, you were more likely to be abandoned and have to sit out that horrible storm with very little."
Martinez was also disturbed by the way the disaster was reported by the media.
"When they were talking about black people looting it was criminals and these bad people," she said. "But when it was white people, it was understandable."
Martinez feels that these attitudes are so ingrained that the media and the public are often unaware of the inappropriateness.
"I don't think it was because the press people . . . were card-carrying KKK members. I really don't," she said. "Unfortunately, these biases are so deeply rooted that people didn't even question the coverage."
Students in Martinez's classes often have racist attitudes and are not aware of them, she said.
"Oh, I've had students say things like, 'Where do these people get off wearing turbans? They need to become like Americans?' I calmly say, 'You need to think that through because America is made up of so many different cultures, that it would be inappropriate to say there is one American culture.' "
Martinez also believes the idea of a historical American melting pot is a myth.
"America was not a melting pot of any kind," she said. "It was basically to be as W.A.S.P. [White Anglo-Saxon Protestant] as you could. People were pressured and killed and maimed and burned and ridden on rails because they didn't look right."
Throughout the course of a semester, Martinez's students typically begin to see how race and class have an effect on everything from education to health care, marriage partners, incarceration and the death penalty.
"For my European American students, when they get it, they get it. They say, 'All this was handed to me and I wasn't aware of it, I didn't earn it. I didn't do anything but simply be born this color.' Then they say, 'What can I do now?' I love that phrase more than anything."
Martinez hopes America will learn the lessons of Katrina.
"I think that when you do understand, it's really about understanding yourself, because we're all just human beings and all this stuff is so unnecessary. And these borders we create? They're not there."
Theresa Martinez, a professor at the University of Utah, will speak at at The Forum for Questioning Minds.
If you go
* Theresa Martinez, University of Utah sociology professor, will discuss "Race, Class and Katrina" at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Salt Lake City Library, 210 E. 400 South.
The Forum for Questioning Minds meets every second and fourth Sunday at the Salt Lake City Library from September through April. All meetings are free and open to the public. For more information visit http://www.questioning-minds.org.