THE BLOG
09/01/2010 09:42 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Katrina Retrospective: Structural Inequality, Environmental Justice and Our National Discourse on Race

While there will be many essays written upon the 5th anniversary of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, I am compelled to offer my own contribution because there are important lessons to be learned from those tragedies that must not be lost.

In the wake of the Shirley Sherrod affair and in the context of the multitude of debates and controversies (some phony, some legitimate) involving race in the last several months, I called for a national dialogue on race. In doing so, I acknowledged that such calls had become cliché and outlined a prescription for a genuine and substantive dialogue, with advocates willing to have an open, honest and deliberative discussion respectful of others' viewpoints on a wide range of issues at the intersection of race and class in America.

I argued that we cannot have a reasonable dialogue about race if we do not begin by recognizing that white privilege, institutional racism, and structural inequalities still exist. And, there is no better evidence of this fact than the ways in which Hurricane Katrina disproportionately affected communities of color.

Numerous scholars have examined the historical, institutional, and geographic causes for the disparate outcomes suffered by African Americans and other communities of color in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Their findings reveal just how structural inequalities and lingering institutional discrimination shaped the disparities in who experienced the impacts of Katrina and help to explain the images of predominately African Americans and the poor that we and the world watched suffering on our television screens.

The disparities in which different communities, neighborhoods, and individuals experienced the effects of Katrina were driven by a history of racism and inequality in the region and manifest in everything from historical patterns of settlement, to the location of public works projects, to the lack of transportation resources.

Reilly Morse, of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, wrote in a report titled "Environmental Justice Through the Eye of Hurricane Katrina":

Many differences exist between how African Americans and the poor in New Orleans and the Mississippi Coast experienced the hurricane: the nature of the disaster, the size of the population affected, the complexity of the geography, and the duration of the disparities. But these communities share a common history of discrimination in settlement and other living conditions that disproportionately increased their vulnerability to disaster and the barriers they faced in precaution and recovery.

(Anyone skeptical of this analysis should watch, If God is Willing and da Creek Don't Rise, the new documentary by Spike Lee; or Jon Stewart's recent interview with NBC Nightly News anchor Brain Williams, who spent days reporting directly from New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina).

More specifically, the environmental problems caused by Katrina and the ways in which those impacts were disproportionately felt across the city could be seen in where floodwaters released toxic substances into the air and water; where damage to previously contaminated sites as well as water and sewage treatment facilities occurred; and where the debris and waste was placed and how it was disposed of.

Unfortunately, we now see some of the same patterns of environmental injustice playing out in the BP oil spill in the Gulf: The massive release of oil threatens to have disproportionate impacts on the health and livelihoods of thousands of African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Latinos, and low-income communities in the Gulf.

This is a region of the country where low-income and minority communities already face disproportionate health risks from environmental hazards. Louisiana is home to "Cancer Alley" -- the lower Mississippi Industrial Corridor -- where hundreds of petrochemical plants and refineries produce roughly 25 percent of the nation's chemicals and emit billions of pounds of toxic pollutants annually. This area has some of the highest cancer rates in the nation.

Now, the oil spill may have disproportionate health impacts on the poor and communities of color who depend on the fishing industry for not only their daily diet but economic survival. Not only are they likely to be affected by the oil in the water, but also by the chemical dispersants that have been used to treat the oil, as there remain legitimate concerns about the safety of these chemicals and their long-terms effects on human health. A great number of people involved in the cleanup were from communities of color; in fact, they were some of the first responders to the crisis. It remains to be seen whether these workers were given the necessary training, safety equipment - especially respirators -- and protective clothing to prevent exposure to toxins and lower the risk of environmental health hazards.

Finally, there is the issue of how to dispose of the oil that has been collected and the miles of oil-soaked boom. Already, there are concerns in the Gulf that these toxic materials are being placed in municipal landfills in predominantly minority communities, which do not have the environmental health and safety standards of hazardous waste landfills. Indeed, a recent study from the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University found that 80 percent of the total waste disposed of by BP was in six (of nine total approved) landfills and that those landfills are located in areas where the percentage of people of color is greater than their percentage in the corresponding county.

President Obama visited the Gulf Coast and the city of New Orleans last weekend. He made note of the progress made in rebuilding the city and the challenges that remain ahead (note that these, too, are influenced by racial disparities). What he did not note was the historical and institutional dynamics behind how and why Katrina and the response to her played out the way they did. Because once this anniversary passes from memory and the camera crews return to New York and Washington, it will be easy for us all to turn our minds to other things. That's precisely because these inequalities persist -- some of us are more vulnerable when hurricanes batter cities or oil gushes from the ocean floor. And as Americans, we should be there for one another not just when disaster strikes, but long before. Katrina and the BP oil spill are national tragedies, not just Gulf Coast tragedies. Their lesson is that we must prepare together, work together, and seek justice and equality together, so no one is left behind when the next flood waters rise or the next oil rig explodes.