Host Steve Curwood talks with social scientists Beverly Wright and Robert Bullard about the issues of environmental justice and discrimination that the poor and black people in New Orleans are facing in the rebuilding efforts following Hurricane Katrina.
CURWOOD: When the levees of New Orleans failed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, thousands of mostly black people were stranded for days in deadly chaos. The callous and inept response to Katrina not only exposed old racial divisions, but as New Orleans struggles to recover 14 months later, some academics say racism is still alive and well in the plans to move forward.
In particular, they question the clean bill of health recently given by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to New Orleans. They say it allows a disproportionate number of the poor and people of color to move back into areas that are still unsafe and highly polluted with no plans for proper cleanup. They also say redevelopment plans unfairly favor the rebuilding of white areas.
I recently traveled to New Orleans for a conference of environmental justice scholars and activists organized by Dillard University sociology Professor Beverly Wright.
She directs the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice in New Orleans. She and Professor Robert Bullard, who directs the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University, spoke with me in the studios of WWNO.
WRIGHT: I think that black people’s concerns about the environment and environmental justice are synonymous. I believe that black people understand the environment because of the injustices that exist in their communities as it relates to their health and exposure. It all merges around the larger concept of civil rights, and so we have combined the idea of environmental protection with civil rights.
BULLARD: The environmental justice movement, actually, in its founding was a response to the fact that the more traditional environmental movement, conservation movement, did not address many of the issues that impact disproportionately people of color and poor people. And so, you know, some 25 years ago, a number of us decided that we have to define for ourselves what our environment is and how we are going to address many of the issues that impact us as people, and particularly as people of color.
CURWOOD: What was the environmental justice situation here in New Orleans before Katrina?
WRIGHT: Well, I can really speak to that because at our center about eight years ago, we mapped the Mississippi River chemical corridor by TRI facilities, TRI facilities being toxic release inventory facilities that have to report to the federal government because they release carcinogens into the air, water, and soil. And that mapping actually showed that African-Americans live closest to these dangerous facilities, even in a city like New Orleans that was predominantly black with a small white population. The white population still tended to live in areas that were cleaner and safer. But in this particular situation, race trumped class, as Dr. Bullard likes to say, because it didn’t matter whether you were middle class, upper class, or wealthy in the city of New Orleans and African-American, you still lived closer to toxic facilities than whites who weren’t as wealthy as what you were.
BULLARD: You know, it’s not by accident that 85-mile stretch from Baton Rouge to New Orleans was dubbed Cancer Alley. You have over 125 petrochemical plants along that river. You have lots of environmental devastation. You have communities that were largely African-American and founded right after slavery. Many of them survived slavery, survived Jim Crow but, in some cases, could not survive the onslaught of the petrochemical industry.
CURWOOD: How did environmental justice make itself manifest during and after Katrina?
BULLARD: I think the fact that before Katrina there were African-American communities that were not given equal protection when it comes to environmental laws and when it comes to health laws. There were children being poisoned with lead, and Moten Elementary School, in the agricultural (?) community, was built on top of that dump, and I don’t think it was safe for that school to re-open. This was before Katrina.
WRIGHT: When the waters actually came there were reports, anecdotal, but I tend to believe them, that even the cadaver dogs were dying by diving into the water. The water was just so corroded and toxic, initially, that they stopped the dogs from diving in. And you saw people walking in all of the muck and the mire and the chemicals that were left behind.
Even with all the talk about contamination, what we find is that there is absolutely no talk about cleaning up the areas that have, in fact, been affected, and most of the homes that were destroyed were those of African-Americans. We are basically being told that because there were so many pollutants in this very old urban city, that what’s here now is no different from what was here before Katrina. And for that reason, they are going to allow us to come back into a heavily polluted city.
CURWOOD: So, let me see if I have this right. The Environmental Protection Agency is saying that since all this pollution was there before the storm, that there’s a clean bill of health because things are about the same today as they were before and so…
BULLARD: Well, that’s, if you read the report, that’s exactly what it’s saying. And we’re saying that is not logical, that is not rational, and it does not make any common sense. This was the golden opportunity to clean up the contamination and the mess that’s there. If there’s contamination, we don’t need to monitor. We need to clean it up.
WRIGHT: And so environmental justice becomes a major point of contention for us in that we have to ask the question: if we were in Boston, for example, in an area that was mostly white, how long would it take for them to clean up that city? We were promised initially that in three months the Army Corps of Engineers would come in. It would take them three months to remove the topsoil and sweep the streets clean so that we can return. Then, all of the sudden, the whole discussion about contaminants completely disappeared, but the contaminants are still here.
CURWOOD: Now, people say that your neighborhood, New Orleans East, below sea level, it should just be allowed to, you know, be a place where water could spill over. Parks, perhaps. This isn’t a place that people should go back and rebuild. What do you think of that?
WRIGHT: Well, I think that’s baloney. The city of New Orleans, the whole city, is nine feet below sea level. There is no high ground here. The Lower Ninth Ward is higher than Lake View, higher than where the University of New Orleans is sitting.
CURWOOD: The studio we’re in right now.
WRIGHT: The studio that we are in right now is actually lower than the Lower Ninth Ward, but these areas were picked for immediate restoration and rebuilding. And now that the floodplain maps have come out, you find out that there was no science at all involved in making those decisions. It may have been political science, but it certainly wasn’t science that anything that had to do with the physical and natural environment. And when you looked at the map, the only areas that they were talking about not rebuilding were areas where the African-American population was about 75 to 80 percent. That was New Orleans East and the Lower Ninth Ward.
CURWOOD: Tell me about your own experience in the aftermath of Katrina. What happened to you?
WRIGHT: There was a lot of discrimination against African-Americans with apartments. You would go there to rent, you’d call, and it was available, and when you got there it wasn’t. And then later you found out there were rental units, but they were not renting to us. They had met their quota of African-Americans. It was really very difficult. And so, as Dr. Beverly Wright, I can absolutely tell you that, in my profession, I rarely, rarely see it or feel it close up, but after Katrina I did because I was no longer Dr. Beverly Wright. I was just an evacuee or a refugee, and I went to the Red Cross, went to the food stamp line, went through everything that very poor people go through. And I was humbled by it.
As a sociologist, I teach people about just how humiliating poor people feel about having to go through the process of dealing with the food stamps, or—you know, for me, learning what EBT was, you know, on the machine. I usually do debit or credit. I never knew that there was a special button for the Louisiana Purchase Card or food stamps. And when you have to press the EBT button, then everybody knows that you’re getting food stamps, and you get this look, you know, like ‘why aren’t you working? or ‘you don’t deserve this.’
BULLARD: We’ve made a lot of mistakes in terms of how we plan for building our cities and providing for communities that don’t have access to jobs and clean energy, and et cetera, and so the environmental justice movement really is talking about bringing about equity, justice, fairness, and the overarching theme is the issue of sustainability.
WRIGHT: Racism holds everybody back. So, while people make the decision that people who work in hotels and restaurants really don’t need a livable wage because they’re black, and we don’t have to pay black people a lot, what they are doing is they are robbing themselves of a decent tax base. They are producing citizens who can’t buy health insurance, putting a drain on the city. And so the racism that drives this belief that you can treat some human beings less than others, in the end catches up with all of us because it lowers the standard of living for everybody. And I think that’s what we have been dealing with in the city of New Orleans.
CURWOOD: Dillard University Professor Beverly Wright and Clark Atlanta University Professor Robert Bullard are co-authors of a report, “In the Wake of the Storm: Environment, Disaster, and Race after Katrina.”
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