Interview: "Race and Poverty Are Out of the Closet"
Hurricane Katrina exposes the wounds of environmental injustice.
By Pat Joseph
Round-the-clock images of the human toll of Hurricane Katrina forced long- ignored issues of race and class into America's living rooms-and brought Robert Bullard's decades-long struggle for environmental justice to the forefront.
A sociology professor at Clark Atlanta University, Bullard is the founder of the school's Environmental Justice Resource Center and the author and editor of 12 books, from 1990's /Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality/ to /The Quest for Environmental Justice: Human Rights and the Politics of Pollution/, an anthology published this fall by Sierra Club Books. His eyes were first opened to environmental discrimination in 1978, when he helped his attorney wife collect data for a lawsuit against a company that had sited a landfill in an African-American Houston community. "We found that every one of the city-owned landfills was located in a predominantly black neighborhood," he says, "even though blacks made up a quarter of the population."
To Bullard, environmental justice is "the notion that everybody has a right to a clean, safe, healthy environment and that no community should become the dumping ground for other people's waste." It's a belief few environmentalists-or Americans in general-would quarrel with, but too few have acted on.
Sierra spoke to Bullard shortly after Hurricane Katrina-at a time when we suddenly had (too many) faces to go with the seemingly abstract ideas of race, class, and injustice.
Sierra: In the wake of Katrina, are you surprised to hear commentators talk about the "two Americas"-the Americas of rich and poor, black and white?
Robert Bullard: The hurricane highlighted some glaring inequities that most people would not see just by visiting the French Quarter. The fact is, New Orleans is 67 percent black, and almost half the children in the city live below the poverty level. Now people around the world are seeing that in living color. The issues of race and poverty are out of the closet, and we can no longer deny that we've done a lousy job addressing environmental, as well as economic and social, issues in this country. People are already talking about rebuilding, but I think it's important that information get out about what conditions in New Orleans and Louisiana were like for the poorest of the poor before the hurricane.
Sierra: There's a chapter in your new book, The Quest for Environmental Justice, about the so-called fence-line communities along the Mississippi River that illustrates some of those conditions.
Bullard: Chapter four was written by Beverly Wright, who is now an evacuee from New Orleans. It's called "Living and Dying in Louisiana's Cancer Alley." The "Louisiana Petrochemical Corridor" is the generic name given to the stretch of the river from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, where you have more than 125 refineries and chemical plants over approximately 85 miles. On that stretch, you also have several predominantly black communities, many of which were founded right after slavery and built on the old plantations. The plants, in many cases, have expanded right up to the fence line. People dubbed it "Cancer Alley" because of the high incidence of cancer and respiratory problems there. For nearly three decades, these communities have been fighting to get pollution levels ratcheted down at the plants. They live right next door, and all they get is pollution. They don't even get the jobs. They get sick.
Sierra: Some of those plants and many Superfund sites have been flooded, adding to what reporters called the "toxic gumbo" in the streets of New Orleans.
Bullard: One community that Wright profiles is a predominantly African-American neighborhood built atop the Agriculture Street Landfill. That site is filled with, among other things, debris from Hurricane Betsy in 1965. The areas of New Orleans that were hit hardest by Katrina are the same ones that got the brunt of Betsy. The Agriculture Street community was engaged in a lawsuit to try to move residents away from this Superfund site, which even has an elementary school on it. It's ironic that Hurricane Katrina may be the only way this neighborhood gets cleaned up. Because it's no longer just Agriculture Street that is a Superfund site: The entire city is now a toxic dump.
Sierra: What are the major environmental-justice concerns for New Orleans going forward?
Bullard: The city will be rebuilt, but many of us are wondering whether it will be something we recognize as New Orleans. Will there just be a marker saying, "This used to be the Birthplace of Jazz"?
The hurricane wiped the slate clean, and there are developers right now saying this is a great opportunity because they don't have to contend with displacing poor people. That might sound cynical, but urban real estate is a sought-after commodity. Research shows that after almost every natural disaster, the poor get poorer. Many of the people who have been displaced are not homeowners. Some families have been renting the same property for generations. To what extent will there be mechanisms to ensure that you don't have gentrification of not just a neighborhood but an entire city? You can rebuild houses, but rebuilding communities is going to be a much bigger challenge.
Sierra: What kind of response should there have been to the hurricane?
Bullard: The Bush administration didn't have a plan, even though it had run models and simulations the year before. It was widely known that a large portion of the population would be left behind. And to come out afterward and say that there was no way to anticipate it is a bit ludicrous. There's plenty of blame to go around, but I think a big part of it has to be laid at the feet of this administration and the Department of Homeland Security.
Sierra: Has Katrina taught us any lessons?
Bullard: We talked about the chemical corridor. Studies show that those facilities are a prime terrorist target, and if Homeland Security's effort in the event of an attack is going to be as inept as the Federal Emergency Management Agency's has been in New Orleans, then we have to go back to the drawing board. We have to make sure that people know about emergency protocols and evacuation procedures. And we have to provide transportation because 40 percent of the people in New Orleans don't have cars and don't have driver's licenses and don't have credit cards. So when you talk about evacuating, where are you going? There has to be a national strategy to deal with these issues. Katrina supports what environmental-justice activists have been saying for more than three decades: When you connect the dots and look at the facts, it's irrefutable that all communities are not created equal. If a community happens to be poor, or a community of color, or located on the wrong side of the tracks, it gets unequal protection. I hope this storm has driven home the realization that ultimately, if these things go neglected, they will affect us all. When we don't enforce our environmental laws, our transportation laws, our housing laws, we all pay.
Pat Joseph is the current-affairs editor for sierraclub.org.
For more information, go to sierraclub.org/environmental_justice