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“Untouchable” New Orleans

As the world commemorates Human Rights Day, my attention turns from the inexcusable and inescapable practice of untouchability suffered by my fellow dalits in India to a different but all to familiar “untouchability” I witnessed visiting New Orleans.

I helped rebuild communities in my home state of Gujarat after an earthquake in 2000, which killed 15,000 people and destroyed over a million homes. I traveled to New Orleans to share my experiences with Stephen Bradberry, a fellow recipient of the RFK Human Rights Award and head organizer for the community organization ACORN in New Orleans.

The morning I arrived, ACORN and its members, survivors of Hurricane Katrina, were holding a press conference about an ordinance allowing the city to take over properties that had not been cleaned out by the one year anniversary of the storm. Saving damaged homes was a task left to the Katrina survivors while the city focused on more pressing issues like closing down public housing. Although the ordinance was finally defeated, it seemed to be part of a greater plan to rid New Orleans of its poor.

The survivors closed the press conference that morning saying, “God is with us and God will save us.” I felt the same pain as when I hear President Bush says, “God will save America” knowing how the will of the unknown God has been an excuse for continuing the social injustice of the caste system in India letting the government get off scot-free for failing to meet constitutional and human rights obligations.

Later I toured the most effected parts of the city. It seemed like a war museum with empty streets, except for the zooming vehicles of gun toting marshals. Were they sent to protect the debris from the poor storm survivors who remained?

In India one year after the earthquake in Gujarat, much of the affected areas had been rebuilt and the Indian government had given 100,000INR (roughly $2,250 USD) to every family who had lost a loved one. That large sum is about two thirds the average yearly income in India, the US equivalent would be almost $30,000. The families of those who died during Hurricane Katrina have received nothing from their government.

Less than a year after the earthquake, Gujarat was back to normal, with people living in their own villages and cities. Here I stood on the land of the super power, the wealthiest nation in the world, where the debris of almost forty thousands homes remained unmoved nearly a year later. Ironically, FEMA offered to sell its systems and services to India to aid in Gujarat after the earthquake. Seeing their results in New Orleans I was glad India declined. The Indian government is far from perfect, but at least it recognized that it had a responsibility towards its people.

In a relatively unaffected part of town I visited a large Whole Foods grocery store. Busy affluent shoppers pushed carts through aisles with every good imaginable. The scene lacked any sense of trauma from the devastation the world witnessed via television after Hurricane Katrina. It became clear that the worst hit areas of New Orleans, those which rebuilding efforts had left untouched almost a year later, were the poorer predominantly African American areas of town.

When Martin Luther King, Jr. traveled to India he was introduced to an audience he was about to address as “a fellow untouchable from the United States of America.” He initially took great offence, but then thought about “twenty million of my brothers and sisters still smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in an affluent society” and realized that, “Yes, I am untouchable” because he was African American. Many years after Martin Luther King’s visit in New Orleans I saw my “untouchable” brothers and sisters still living in these conditions.

Nothing could have better illustrated this untouchability than where my tour of New Orleans ended, on the road dividing the predominantly white University of New Orleans and its predominantly African American neighbor, New Orleans Southern University. The University of New Orleans’ buildings were in tact, the left side of the road closest to its campus had been rebuilt. Southern University’s buildings were still damaged, with trailers in the parking lot to serve as classrooms and the road, two feet to the right of repaired road, which serviced Southern University was a rusty, coarse, sand bed. That was the real and palpable ground of discrimination.

I came to New Orleans to share my experiences of rebuilding Gujarat after the earthquake. I left with a heavy heart. As my flight took off, my eyes searched for the tall Statue of Liberty, but could not find it. Perhaps it was because I was very far from New York and too far from the southern city of New Orleans. If that Statue of Liberty and all she stands for is to reach New Orleans, the government will have to start taking responsibility for the rights of its own people.

Martin Macwan

Martin Macwan

Martin Macwan is an advocate for the human rights of the dalit people in India, founder of the Nasvarjan Trust and 2000 winner of the RFK Human Rights Award.

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