Environmental racism is still rampant post-Katrina

OPINION - The ugly legacy of a "separate and unequal" doctrine haunts environmental policies that negatively impact low-income communities of color...

As a nation, we have overcome many racial barriers, but in too many of our cities and towns, the ugly legacy of a “separate and unequal” doctrine haunts environmental policies that negatively impact low-income communities of color. This became painfully obvious five years ago, when the hurricane season ripped through the Gulf Coast and unveiled the racial, social, and economic inequities that lay hidden beneath good times in “The Big Easy.”

The truth was on prime time—in New Orleans, de facto segregation was alive and there were entire communities that because of their built environment, were not able to flee, or recover from, disaster. But New Orleans was not alone. Poor communities across the nation, many of them communities of color—in the San Francisco Bay Area, rural Tennessee, industrial Midwest, or other parts of this country—continue to deteriorate from environmental racism.

Environmental racism is a policy, or structured practice having to do with the built environment that negatively impacts a racially homogenous group at a disproportionately higher rate than its (often) more affluent counterpart. These biased policies are reflected in deliberate efforts to concentrate toxins and other hazardous waste and pollutants in low-income communities of color or divert necessary infrastructure improvements from these very same communities. Research has confirmed that long-term exposure to toxins in the air, land, and water lead to long-term negative health conditions, including increased risk of asthma, cancer, and other chronic and deadly diseases. However, the impact of environmental racism is not only confined to health—the economic impact can be just as fatal.

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Billions have been lost in wealth for African Americans and other people of color in the region from the impact of Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma—and for some, there was never a chance that they could survive. According to a National Science Foundation Investigation, some of New Orleans’ levees began to fail even before Hurricane Katrina actually touched New Orleans, and even worse, the levees were never built to protect the city—or the people who lived closest to the levees—against a Category 3 hurricane. So, the result was a devastating loss of lives, homes, personal property and assets, particularly in the mostly African American Lower Ninth Ward. In fact, 91 percent of rental properties in New Orleans East were lost due to severe storm damage and more than $125 billion was lost from property damage.

This has led to more expensive housing options for those who live there today, with 58 percent of New Orleans renters currently spending 35 percent of their pre-tax income on housing, compared to the nation’s average of 41 percent. Against the backdrop of the recession and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, productivity in the Gulf Coast has remained stagnant and the regional economy is still trying to catch up to the national average. The impact is especially severe for African Americans and Latinos, whose household median incomes lag behind their white counterparts at 44 percent and 25 percent, respectively. Compounding the issue even further is the disproportionately high numbers of African-Americans who have been displaced by hurricanes in recent years, for which relocation and increased cost of living expenses have prevented a sound and sustainable accumulation of wealth—or even a standard savings portfolio.

Five years into what will be an inevitably long recovery from unparalleled calamity in the region, it is the time for us to ensure that communities of color file claims and receive compensation for the physical and economic harm caused by disasters and the increased risk many of these communities face due to their proximity to hazardous structures. There is no quick fix to this dilemma, but it starts with a commitment from government and private entities to invest resources and structural improvements in low-income communities, the same way this is done for more affluent communities.

As the nation looks to put its citizens back to work, now is the time to create and retain jobs that will equip all of our communities for crisis, by improving substandard infrastructure and by removing toxin-emitting structures or debris from the places where our children have to live and grow. Some may venture to say that if we did this—if we as a nation collectively responded to the wealth and health disparities that impact low-income communities of color as a result of hazards in the built environment, we would not have a problem with global warming today. Either way, if we don’t correct the lens through which we have historically viewed the worthiness of certain communities to receive infrastructure and resource investment, we may all end up paying dearly for it in the future.