Remembering Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Gulf Coast Region

A good friend of mine was once a teacher in the New Orleans Public School system, he told me once that your average person could never imagine the amount of poverty that existed in New Orleans and how his students, most of them poor and black had to live. After days of watching the aftermath of hurricane Katrina unfold in our living rooms; watching the ineptness of our government’s inability to respond to help thousands of mostly, poor, black people, who could not leave New Orleans, I’d like to believe that everyone at least has some idea of the level of poverty that existed in New Orleans, before the hurricane, Katrina. In many ways Katrina did what many social workers, political activist and local leaders have been trying to do for years, put a face on race and poverty in this county and show the ever widening divisions between those that have and those that have not. Hurricane Katrina also showed children, families, and the elderly suffering because of decades of neglect and public policy that gave little thought to the poor.

Prior to Katrina nearly 50,000 poor people lived in areas of New Orleans where the poverty rate was over 40 percent. In New Orleans the poor black folks were clustered in extremely poor neighborhoods like the Lower Ninth Ward. These neighborhoods did not happen by accident they are the by product of decades of government policies that concentrated the poor, black people in public housing in the inner city. Federal tax dollars encouraged sprawl, neglected affordable housing for the poor thus cutting them from a decent housing, education and economic opportunities.

Katrina revealed to the America public, massive amounts of poverty in this country. Poverty fueled by public policy and urban sprawl which isolated inner city low income workers and people of color from jobs, public transportation, decent affordable housing, and educational opportunities. Katrina also showed the consequences of racial and economic inequality in the United States; massive amounts of people left behind to fend for themselves and most of them are black.

Policy Link, a national non profit research organization, has developed a ten point guide to rebuilding the Gulf Coast region. The NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), and the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank that seeks to broaden the public debate about strategies to achieve a prosperous and fair economy, all of these organizations have come up with very similar strategies in rebuilding the Gulf Coast. I have tried to summarize some of their key points.

First, everyone who was evacuated from the region should be able to return. Governmental policies should require that local residents have preference for all jobs that are created during the reconstruction process. These residents also need to play a central role in rebuilding their communities. There should be focus on rebuilding the Gulf Coast so that all communities are mixed income this will help spread affordable housing across the region. There should also be a system in place to help families find housing in economically integrated neighborhoods.

Secondly, workers who rebuild need fair and decent wages, which will increase the wealth of residents and help lift people out of poverty. Unfortunately, President suspended the Davis-Bacon Act, in areas affected by the flood. Davis-Bacon enacted in 1931, is also known as the prevailing wage law because it preserves the local area wages and labor standards for contractors working with the federal government. Davis-Bacon also ensured affirmative action in employment and guaranteed civil rights protection for minorities and women. Third, voices of the residents need to be heard throughout the rebuilding process. Every effort should be made to ensure that everyone, including those displaced can continue to engage in the voting process and vote in state and local elections. Residents of color, whether returning to the Gulf Coast or settling permanently in other regions, must continue to have representation that serves their interests and needs.

Fourth, there needs to be massive jobs and skills training to help people qualify for jobs that will become available during the reconstruction process. Helping people get the training they need will help people participate in the reconstruction process. Lastly, establish a reconstruction fund for rebuilding new homes, business, etc. Government officials need to communicate with representatives throughout the planning and rebuilding process. In short the Gulf Coast region must be rebuilt in a manner that will not repeat the mistakes of the past and create large pockets of concentrated poverty.

In the aftermath of Katrina it is clear that the response by the federal government to the Gulf Coast region was a disaster in itself and overshadowed the hurricane. Dr. Robert Bullard has published a Twenty-Point Plan to Destroy Black New Orleans  his plan is based on his observations made since the storm destroyed the region.

Environmental Racism

Dr. Robert Bullard, who is the leading authority on Environmental Racism (ER), calls “Environmental Racism a combination of prejudice and the power to implement decisions and policies that defend, protect and enhance the social position of Whites at the expense of people of color.”  As Americans we live in a racist society and we suffer from the remnants of our sordid history; the exploitation of people of color which lead to slavery, and racial discrimination – in employment, housing and practically all aspects of life.  Racism is institutionalized; it is part of the culture and history of the United States.  According to Bullard “The term racism refers to any policy practice, or directive that deferentially affect or disadvantages (whether intended or unintended) individuals, groups, or communities based on race or color.”  Discrimination is a manifestation of institutional racism and causes life to be very different for white folks when compared to black folks.  Historically, racism has been and continues to be a major part of our American society and as a result, people of color continue to find themselves disadvantaged in a modern society.

Dr. Benjamin Chavis was the first person to coin the term environmental racism, in 1981.  Environmental Racism can be defined as: Racial discrimination in environmental policy making and the enforcement of regulations and laws; the deliberate targeting of people of color communities for toxic and hazardous waste facilities; the official sanctioning of the life-threatening presence of poisons and pollutants in our communities; and the history of excluding people of color from the leadership of the environmental movement.  It also refers to any government, institutional, or industry action, or failure to act, that has a negative environmental impact which disproportionately harms – whether intentionally or unintentionally – individuals, groups, or communities based on race or color.  It is also a combination of public policies and industry practices to provide benefits for whites while shifting cost to people of color.

In the United States, the victims of environmental racism are people of color, who are more likely than Whites to live in environmentally hazardous conditions. Three out of five African Americans live in communities with uncontrolled toxic waste sites. Native American lands and sacred places are home to extensive mining operations and radioactive waste sites. Three of the five largest commercial hazardous waste landfills are located in predominantly African American and Latino communities.  As a consequence, the residents of these communities suffer shorter life spans, higher infant and adult mortality, poor health, poverty, diminished economic opportunities, substandard housing, and an overall degraded quality of life.  In other words environmental racism is another form of racial oppression.

What is Environmental Justice: An Overview

In 1999 a study by the Institute of Medicine defined “environmental justice as being a concept that addresses the physical and social health issues related to the distribution of environmental benefits and burdens among the populations, particularly in degraded and hazardous physical environments occupied by minority or disadvantaged populations.”
The Environmental Protection Agency defines Environmental Justice as
“the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”
Environmental justice encompasses the pursuit of justice and protection under the law without discriminations based on race, ethnicity, or income level.  Environmental justice focuses on improving the environment in communities, specifically minority and low-income communities, and addressing disproportionate adverse environmental impacts that may exist in those communities.  Basically, no group regardless of race, ethnic background, or socioeconomic status should have to bear an unfair share of negative environmental conditions from the government or private industry.
In order to understand environmental justice, we need to recognize Environmental Racism, or environmental injustice which is defined as the disproportionate impact that pollution and toxins have on people of color, indigenous peoples and poor people.  Numerous studies have shown that communities of color, especially black communities, and low-income communities in the United States host an inordinate number of environmental hazards and bear a disproportionate impact of environmental irresponsibility.  This is the core of environmental injustice, which the movement for environmental justice seeks to eradicate from environmental policy, industry tactics and cultural practices.
Environmental justice is the byproduct of the intersection between the civil rights movement and the environmental movements.  The Environmental Justice movement has emerged as a result of increased awareness of the disproportionately high impacts of environmental pollution on economically and politically disadvantaged communities.  The environmental justice movement stresses community participation in the decision-making process and equal access to relief mechanisms regarding pollution.  It has brought together issues of social, economic, and political marginalization of minorities and low-income communities, and concerns over pollution hazards in neighborhoods and in the workplace.
Over the past two decades the Environmental Justice Movement (EJM) has grown organically out of dozens, even hundreds, of local struggles so much so that pointing to a particular date or event that launched the Environmental Justice Movement is difficult. One could easily argue that environmental justice started with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 when he went to Memphis, Tennessee to help Black striking garbage workers who were demanding equal pay and better working conditions.  Sadly Dr. King was assassinated shortly after he gave a speech supporting the garbage workers, but his wife, Coretta Scott King, picked up the cause and marched with the striking workers shortly after her husband was assassinated and before he was buried.
One could also make the argument that Native Americans have been doing environmental justice work for centuries.  It is however, historically recognized that the environmental justice movement took off in 1982 in Warren County, North Carolina, when residents protested against the siting of another hazardous waste landfill in their county.  Activists from both the civil rights and environmental movements laid down in front of trucks carrying PCB-contaminated soil into the largely African-American Warren County – already inundated with more industry than any of the other counties in North Carolina.  The Warren County demonstrations did not stop the new landfill but the events that transpired in this rural, mostly black, and poor county brought attention on environmental racism and the impact of public policy decisions sighting unwanted facilities.
According to Robert Bullard, the environmental justice framework rests on developing tools and strategies to eliminate unfair, unjust, and inequitable conditions and decisions.  The framework also attempts to uncover the underlying assumptions that may contribute to and produce differential exposure and unequal protection.  It brings to the surface the ethical and political questions of “who gets what, when, why, and how much.” The environmental justice framework adopts a public health model of health promotion, protection and disease prevention (i.e., elimination of the threat before harm occurs) as the preferred strategy; shifts the burden of proof to polluters/dischargers who do harm, who discriminate, or who do not give equal protection to people of color, low-income persons, and other “protected” classes; allows disparate impact and statistical weight to be used to infer discrimination;  redresses disproportionate impact through “targeted” action and resources.  In general, this strategy would target resources where environmental and health problems are greatest.  Sociology is the theoretical framework that ties it all together