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Letter to New Orleans

August 30, 2007

Dear Sir,

You probably won’t remember me by the time you read this letter, but I
will remember you and your city and what I witnessed there during my
four-day stay in May.

You drove me to the New Orleans airport at the end of my visit, sharing
with me along the way how tired you were and how you’d love to stop by
3XXX Phoenix, Apt. C, to take a rest before continuing on with your
day.  As you told me about your wife and children still living in
Houston and about your friends scattered all across the country, I
scribbled down your address so that I would be able to mail you this
letter.  I wanted to bring you a little bit of hope and cheer
knowing that not everyone has forgotten about the tragedy that befell
your beloved city nor about the tragedies of racism and classism that
still permeate our society.

What I witnessed in New Orleans both horrified and inspired me.  I
was horrified by the blatant effort to keep poor black New Orleaneans
from returning to their homes.  At the same time, I was inspired
by the strength and will of those who have returned despite the
overwhelming obstacles–residents such as Stephanie, bearing a t-shirt
emblazoned with the words “Everyone has the right to return,” standing
defiantly outside of the cordoned-off public housing to which she was
barred from returning after the storm.  Residents such as Naomi,
who painted a dashing mural across the front of her home to hide the
water marks from the flood.  And residents such as yourself, who
works overtime to make up for the shortage of employees at your shuttle
company while your kids go to school in Houston.

When Katrina hit, media pundits hollared that the levees had broken on
issues of race and class in the United States and that a national
dialogue would ensue, forcing Americans to face deep-seated, if
subconscious, attitudes and beliefs.  Clearly, and unfortunately,
those levees were repaired a lot quicker than the literal levees in New
Orleans, where the effects of racism and classism continue to take a
brutal toll on you and your neighbors.

As I wandered through the forgotten neighborhoods of your city, I was
surprised to not find myself in a deeper state of shock over the
destruction still prevalent.  Am I heartless, I thought to
myself.  Then it hit me:  post-Katrina New Orleans looks no
different from post-industrial Philadelphia, with its large swaths of
abandoned row homes, uprooted sidewalks, and cracked pavement. 
It’s been two years since Katrina hit N.O. but over twenty years since
the decline of industrialization in Philadelphia and we still haven’t
reinvested in our poor, black (and, increasingly, “brown”)
neighborhoods.

This realization makes me hurt for your city and mine.  What hope
does New Orleans have for recovery from its natural disaster if after
twenty years, Philadelphia still hasn’t recovered from its economic
disaster? 

I believe there is hope, though.  There is hope if Americans truly
do engage in a dialogue on race and class in our country and don’t
sidestep the issue because it’s too sensitive.  Even as I write I
feel nervous about how you will portray my words, coming as they are
from a middle-class white female.  Are the words I’m using
themselves racist?  Are my views?  If they are, please tell
me; inform me of my ignorance and I promise to accept it and reflect
upon it.  I’m willing to feel embarrassed and ashamed if it will
help me to grow, to know how you feel in a society dominated by whites.

A black friend of mine once pointed out to me–after I had proudly
proclaimed that I didn’t see color when I looked at a person–that
although whites may not think we see color, we ought to; if we did, we
would realize that our world is still very much black and white.

For the sake of your city and mine, I’m willing to let my own pride go and see our world for what it is. 

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