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Katrina Anniversary Nears, and Should Evoke Truths, Both Ugly and Ennobling

August 13, 2009 By:
Jacob Schuman
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As we approach the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina on Aug. 29, Americans should take the opportunity to learn not only the familiar lessons about economic and racial injustice, but also to embrace the responsibilities these lessons oblige.

New Orleans nourishes a vibrant African-American culture and a flourishing Jewish community. More fundamentally, our communities' shared sufferings demand our special commitment to a city whose residents have also endured catastrophe, neglect and homelessness, and whose collective perseverance echoes that of our ancestors.

As a public policy fellow at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs in Washington over the past six months, I helped plan and implement a mission to new New Orleans that included members of JCPA and African-American leaders from across the country. Together we sought to engage these issues.

It has been said many times that Katrina revealed ugly truths about American society -- that the cataclysm was merely a symptom, the sight of refugees escaping the city only the continuation of a history of economic and racial exclusion.

Our experiences confirmed these assertions. Years before the storm ever hit, the Katrina disaster incubated in the 9th Ward and the St. Bernard Housing Projects, forgotten and despised areas of the city.

But four years later, we also encountered a more hopeful, yet perhaps even more challenging narrative -- one that offers new meaning for the Katrina anniversary. From nearly every neighborhood, we heard almost universal recollections of the social harmony that briefly blossomed at the grassroots in the midst of Hurricane Katrina's devastation.

We knew that the government botched the immediate response to the storm, and that the federal "Road Home" program had failed to allocate adequate funds for returning residents. Yet even as we heard condemnations of administrative apathy, it was coupled with praise and appreciation for the incredible work of volunteers, residents and organizers in the reconstruction process.

Volunteers throughout the nation have traveled to New Orleans to rebuild not just houses but entire neighborhoods. Though much work remains, an officer from the New Orleans Fire Department declared simply, "The American people rebuilt the city of New Orleans."

As African- and Jewish Americans, we intimately understood the potential for such collective movements to initiate transformative progress toward social justice. While governments ignored, stalled or countered their efforts, American abolitionists and emancipated European Jews in the 19th century, followed by blacks and Jews marching together in the American civil rights movement of the 20th century, advocated and organized for a more just society. We could see this legacy continued in the efforts of community organizations in New Orleans performing the vital reconstruction and renewal work that the government has not.

So when we remember Katrina, let us not conclude with the condemnation of racial injustice. That is just the first step toward a more fundamental realization.

In light of government's perpetual failures to ensure social justice, whether in Europe, the Jim Crow South or post-Katrina New Orleans, we must recognize our responsibility as American citizens to enact that justice through the only means we have -- grassroots civic engagement and dedicated progressive activism.

In that spirit, the JCPA is encouraging Congress to support the "Gulf Coast Civic Works Act," legislation that would fund reconstruction programs through groups currently doing work on the ground there.

These funds would allow community-level organizations to rebuild urgently needed infrastructure, create 100,000 new green jobs, ensure that households are protected from future floods, rebuild marshes that had provided natural flood protection, and provide a national model for using existing community organizations to engage citizens in sustainable development.

As we review the images of destruction from four years ago, we can use our outrage constructively by contacting our representatives to support this crucial bill, and to contribute by planning our own service trips.

Aug. 29 should not only commemorate our anger at government failures during Hurricane Katrina, but also the pride and hope inspired by the successes of determined grassroots organizers and residents in New Orleans, who provide a contemporary example of the social responsibility we so admire in our forbears.

In January, the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday provides Americans the chance to celebrate the struggle for justice and to perform a day of public service. This August, perhaps it's time for another such chance.

Jacob Schuman, a Philadelphia native, is starting Harvard Law School in the fall.

 

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