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Two countries ‘free but not equal’ and tainted by discrimination

America and India are united not just by diplomatic ties and trade but also by grave social issues that threaten democracy in both countries, said American civil rights activist Reverend Jesse Jackson.

Despite its greatness, “discrimination and inequality in the field of education, jobs and opportunities make America free but not equal” even in today’s day and age.

At a talk, in association with The Telegraph, at Bengal Club on Monday, Jackson spoke about how both America and India needed tools of education and “a level playing field” for all to wipe out the inequalities.

The session was moderated by veteran journalist Sunanda K. Datta-Ray.

Jackson, 72, who is on a three-day tour of Calcutta, is an activist who fought alongside Martin Luther King Jr. for civil and economic rights of African-Americans and was instrumental in the enactment of The Voting Rights Act of 1965, which allowed voting rights to racial minorities.

“Just like the caste-based untouchability here, we were untouchable in America on the basis of our appearance. It (untouchability) is not peculiar to India. We could not sit in the same parks, drink from the same fountain or use the same toilets as the whites,” Jackson said when asked to compare the problem of untouchability in the two countries.

Despite having overcome the hurdles of basic human rights, the near absence of minorities in Silicon Valley’s upper echelons is symptomatic of an economic apartheid that is less visible than the segregation of half a century ago but just as pernicious, the civil rights leader pointed out.

“There are no Blacks on their boards or in the top executive management.… Just as cotton and tobacco drove the agenda 50 years ago, now it’s being driven by Silicon Valley.”

Jackson went on to add that African-Americans continued to fight a war against the state and the corporate system, which denies them opportunities.

“The debate in America is not just political but ideological. This is a civil war being fought…. We are still fighting an apartheid in corporate America. We are still fighting the overflow of 246 years of slavery.”

Speaking about India’s growth, he said that just like America, this, too, is a country that is “free but not equal”.

While on the one hand India is the “number one exporter of brains in the world and runs giants like Microsoft”, it also is “number one in poverty”.

Poverty, which Jackson described as a “weapon of mass destruction, one that stifles development and cuts productivity”, is another factor common to India and the US, he said.

Just as India still has 75 million children who cannot afford to go to school because of poverty, America too came face to face with poverty after the financial meltdown in 2008. “Six million people are on food stamps and millions lost their homes.”

Jackson thanked India for the teachings of Gandhi and Mother Teresa. “We have a great debt to India because it taught us to win wars without weapons.”

Jackson was a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984 and 1988 and served as a shadow US senator for the district of Columbia from 1991 to 1997. He is also the founder of the organisations that merged to form Rainbow/PUSH, which pursues social justice, civil rights and political activism. He was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honour, in 2000.

US consul-general, Helen LaFave, who attended the talk, described the social activist as “an American treasure”.

“The message that I took back from his speech is that ‘we need to talk’,” she said, focusing on Jackson’s idea of engaging with others to solve political, social and economic problems.