From New Orleans to Mannar

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

This article appeared in Lakbima News on September 19 2010.

Way Down Yonder in New Orleans

Much good has emerged from Louisiana: Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Dr John, Allen Toussaint, the Neville Brothers and Cajun musicians like Doug Kershaw, Gladdy Thibodaux and Dewey Balfa.

There is a downside. When I was there, white people would inveigh against blacks. I could feel the hatred in the eyes of the blacks along Frenchman’s in New Orleans. Louisiana is still segregated.

Tulane University was established in New Orleans in 1843. Its motto is: “Not for oneself, but for one’s own” – a bizarre mission statement in a segregated society. Joshua M Schoop is studying for a Masters in International Development at Tulane. He had been living in Sri Lanka for all of three months when chastised us, in an article in the magazine Groundview (published by CHA – Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies).

“The destitution and ineptitude in Mannar Town and the surrounding area is visible to anyone”.

“Natives are suffering immensely from the impacts of the war”. Does anyone use the word “natives” anymore? “In progressive nations, this is where a government would come in to assist.” Josh concedes the government has built new roads which help the local economy but the roads are “helpful for military operations”. Is the army not doing useful work de-mining and rebuilding? Schoop claims the military is depriving “the locals” of jobs.

Following the American civil war, Louisiana, was under martial law.

“Several international and community-based organisations are operating in the area, assisting where they can, while further perpetuating a dependence on foreign aid.” Josh, are you not planning a career based on such dependence?

I was shown around a plantation house in Louisiana  by a “docent” employed to sanitise the horrors of the Old South for the heritage industry. Before the civil war, Louisiana’s wealth depended on slavery.

White Democrats blocked black voter-registration and institutionalised racial discrimination. 47% of Louisiana’s population in 1900 was African-American – 652,013 black citizens. By 1910, there were only 730 black voters. White Democrats had established one-party rule which they maintained long into the 20th century.

Today, Louisiana has poverty, crime and health indicators, particularly for blacks, equivalent to third- world nations.

The victims of Hurricane Katrina were disproportionately black. More than 80% of African-American births in inner-city New Orleans are to unmarried women. There is a cohort of rootless adolescent males which translates into potential social disorder probably worse than anything in Mannar. Blacks form a disproportionate share of the US prison population. Louisiana State Prison at Angola Prison Farm, like US prisons generally, incarcerate a disproportionate number of blacks. Two of Louisiana’s great musicians – Huddie Ledbetter and James Booker – did time there. This prison is on land bought in the 1830s with slave-trading profits. In the 1930s, hardened criminals broke down upon being notified that they were being sent to Angola. Even in the 1970s, weak inmates served as slaves who were gang-raped, and traded like cattle. In 2009 James Ridgeway wrote in Mother Jones magazine that Angola was “An 18,000-acre complex that still resembles the slave plantation it once was.”

In 2008, mayor Ray Nagin threatened that any New Orleans residents caught looting after Katrina would be immediately transported to Angola.

Sri Lanka’s past investments in a broad-based public health system ensured that there were no disease outbreaks after the tsunami; neither were there any major health problems in what the west saw as “extermination camps” at war’s end. Essential supplies were mobilized within a day of the tsunami. It was possible to feed, clothe, and shelter survivors; provide the injured with medical attention; and ensure that the thousands of bodies were quickly cremated or buried.

US authorities reacted to Katrina with mind-boggling incompetence. Five years on, tourists are back in the French Quarter enjoying the over-rated cuisine, the great music and the transsexuals. Beyond the tourist hotspots, for example in St Bernard parish, homes have not been rebuilt and more than a third of residents have not returned. Tens of thousands of people still live in trailer parks in Texas and beyond. The Lower Ninth Ward was the most devastated part of New Orleans. All that’s left from many of the houses that were destroyed are foundations. Brad Pitt helped to provide 200 affordable houses for residents who would like to return, but few wish to do so. Henry Irvin, aged 74, did return in 2008 and his is the only occupied house on his square. He says the problem is racism and greed. “Some big people in this town are trying to buy all that land to build motels and casinos”. A federal judge ruled that the criteria for awarding rebuilding grants discriminated against black people. A Kaiser Foundation poll found that a third of New Orleans residents say their lives are still getting worse. Blacks were twice as likely as whites to say they still had not recovered from Katrina.

Life expectancy for black US males was 70 in 2003; the average life-span of an African-American in New Orleans is 69.3 years, nearly as low North Korea. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said that Sri Lanka’s health indicators are improving all the time.”  Life expectancy in Sri Lanka has risen steadily. In 1946 it was 43.9 for males and 41.6 for females. Life expectancy in 2001 for males was 70.7 years; for females, it was 75.4 years. 17, 2009).

In 2003-05, the infant mortality rate (IMR) in the US as a whole for African-Americans was 13.6; the rate for White Americans was 5.7 per 1000 births. IMR is generally seen as an indicator of a nation’s level of health development and is one of the best predictors of state failures. Sri Lanka’s IMR was 11.2 in 2003 for 2006 was 10 per 1,000 live births. WHO regards this as a great success and attributes it to “effective and widely accessible prevention and primary healthcare strategies including treatment of minor infections”.

Louisiana’s poverty rate is 19.2%; more than 26% of the state’s children live in poverty. The gap between rich and poor continues to widen. Use of food stamps jumped 13 % in 2008 to nearly 9.8 million U.S. households, led by Louisiana.

The three most violent cities in the world are Cuidad Juarez in Mexico, Caracas in Venezuela and New Orleans. Louisiana’s murder rate has been the highest in the US for 21 consecutive years. Louisiana’s incarceration rate has been the highest of any state for the last 20 years; it retains the death penalty. Should Josh be scolding his compatriots that these measures are not effective?

America’s civil war lasted four years and ended 145 years ago. Sri Lanka’s civil war lasted 30 years and only ended 16 months ago. The Reconstruction era was a difficult period in American history . Progress is already being made in Sri Lanka but we are too slow for Josh.

It is good of Josh to take the trouble come over here to Sri Lanka to help us out when there is so much to do back home. I wonder what he is doing to help us.