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Standing Shoulder-to-Shoulder in Haiti

–When asked “How are they surviving?” Haitian journalist Wadner Pierre responded, “Well, they’re all sharing. That’s what we do. That’s the way Haitians are.” (January 16)

–“The city has seen little violence, despite persistent fears that shortages of food, water and shelter will spark unrest.” (January 21)

–Photograph of a white female US Navy medic cradling and feeding a dehydrated Haitian child. (January 21)

I thank my local newspaper, the Contra Costa Times, for including the above images in its coverage of the disastrous January 12, 2010 earthquake in Haiti. These images are vital because they reflect our true human nature that is too often clouded by a pernicious deep structure.

In 2005, upon first hearing about hurricane Katrina on radio newscasts I thought in my head how tragic it was. But when I saw pictures of Katrina, showing how aid and rescue efforts had been needlessly slow to reach poor, African American neighborhoods amid unrealized fears of widespread looting and unrest, my heart was gripped with terror. I felt a visceral pain when faced with the reality that the deep structure of racism on which my nation was founded still persists, despite the abolition of slavery, passage of the Civil Rights Act, and the awakening consciousness of so many people of all races that we truly are equal.

This deep structure is built on the notion that poor people of African descent are less than human, to be exploited economically in good times and to be feared in times of crisis. It is a structure designed to protect the wealth of a few, at the expense of our common humanity.

After the earthquake struck Haiti, my heart was again gripped with terror to see more evidence of this deep structure: When I heard that the US response prioritized “security” over urgent humanitarian assistance; when I read that the US military took control of the Port-au-Prince airport and turned away airplanes carrying medical field hospitals; when I saw that donations of water, food and supplies were not reaching many affected areas at all and some only after thousands who survived the initial quake had needlessly died of infection and dehydration.

The deep structure of racism has infected much of the media that shapes people’s consciousness, but as our eyes and hearts are opened, the outpouring of solidarity at a basic human level emerges. As soon as we get to know people of different races and circumstances on a personal level, the deep structure already begins to crumble. I see people in my home town of Richmond, California breaking down the deep structure every day by seeing their neighbors as brothers and sisters, challenging the negative stereotypes of our city that this structure perpetuates. Ever since I was a teenager and first sensed the existence of this structure, I, a white woman, have been working on breaking it down within myself.

People all over the world are giving generously without hesitation to support those suffering in Haiti, and aid workers are rushing there to help. That’s what people do. It’s human nature. I suspect that individual soldiers, as evidenced from the photograph mentioned above, would rather care for people immediately than be ordered to guard shipments of supplies bottle-necked at the airport. Long before the earthquake, I learned about hundreds of people-to-people partnerships between local groups in the US and Haiti to collaborate on schools, clinics, and other constructive projects. Cuban doctors who have been in Haiti for years are joining Haitian doctors round the clock treating earthquake victims with minimal supplies (though the US military has turned away additional Cuban doctors who want to come). Everyone I know who travels to Haiti and becomes personally acquainted with Haitians and their invincible spirit invariably falls in love with them, as did I.

The earthquake is very personal for me because I first started to learn about Haiti and her history shortly before the political earthquake of the February 29, 2004 coup d’etat in which the US helped topple the vastly popular and democratically elected government of the Lavalas party, kidnapping President Aristide and banishing him from the Western Hemisphere. I visited Haiti twice since the coup and have many friends there who are struggling under UN military occupation to maintain strong networks to dismantle the deep structure of racism, asserting their dignity as human beings who care for their communities.

A tiny segment of Haiti’s population is fabulously wealthy, while the vast majority are desperately poor. Ever since the poor had the nerve to stand up for themselves and break the shackles of slavery and colonialism 206 years ago, the US government has colluded with the wealthy few to maintain this gross inequality, most recently taking the form of ensuring an abundant pool of cheap labor for offshore assembly plants.

Under the leadership of twice elected President Aristide, Haiti moved in the direction of improving the lives of the poor. Since the coup, he remains exiled in South Africa, ready to return home but not allowed to by the US controlled Haitian government. Why is Aristide so often demonized by media pundits? Is it because he challenges the Haitian elite’s contempt for the common people and invites them to stand shoulder to shoulder with blacks rather than get down on their knees with the whites? Is it because he calls for everyone to have a place at the table, including poor, rich, black, brown and white?

Now more than ever, the aftermath of Haiti’s earthquake beckons us to further dismantle the deep structure of racism that violates humanity, and stand shoulder to shoulder with our Haitian sisters and brothers. To this end we must insist that delivery of vital earthquake aid be accelerated, that Haiti’s foreign debt be cancelled and Haitians given the wherewithal to rebuild their own country on their own terms, that foreign military occupiers be removed, that the election ban on Haiti’s popular Lavalas party be lifted and that Aristide be allowed to return.

It’s time for the wealthy to get in touch with their true human nature and do a better job of sharing the resources of the earth. We must build new structures that join us together in embracing the Haitian motto “tout moun se moun”–Haitian Kreyol for “every person is a human being”.

MARILYN LANGLOIS is a board member of the Haiti Emergency Relief Fund and a Member of the Haiti Action Committee.

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