Why We Should Be Hella Concerned About Environmental Racism By Kymberly Akpowowo

Marcos Assis via Getty Images

What does August 29, 2005, vs. August 29, 2021, have in common? Sadly, a lot. Exactly 16 years to the day that Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc in the state of Louisiana residents are dealing with Hurricane Ida. 16 years later we have made minimal progress in the fight to dismantle/improve the damaging effects of structural and environmental racism. To note, about 60% of the population in New Orleans is Black. At the time this post was penned, more than 800,000 residents were without power, sewage, or water in Louisiana. Of the 10 parishes that make up the Greater Orleans area, Jefferson and Orleans report having the most customers with power outages. Before getting into this post, it’s only appropriate to offer a more comprehensive definition of environmental racism. The Century Foundation offers the following:

Environmental racism refers to the many ways that communities of color—in the United States, Black communities in particular—face greater harms from environmental factors. The term, which was first articulated in studies of waste disposal, toxic dumping, and industrial uses, is now understood to encompass everything from the siting of industrial uses; to proximity to power plants and factories; to higher exposure to emissions from mobile sources of pollution, like cars, trucks, and ships; to the disproportionate harm that disasters like Hurricane Katrina do to Black communities.

Environmental problems facing Black communities are prevalent as they are often residentially segregated and access to safe quality water, air, and housing is less and green space is damn near non-existent. This leads to lower property values, environmental harms, and hazardous living conditions. While these conditions do not make the land highly sought after or HGTV worthy; it is appealing to industry giants(e.g. Oil & gas, waste & manufacturing). These industrial facilities often set up shop and take over a neighborhood faster than Cash Money Records thereby creating a cycle of industrial land use that prevents Black communities from property ownership, which is directly correlated to wealth creation.

These industrial takeovers combined with systemic barriers leaves residents vulnerable to environmental hazards and natural disasters like Ida that often put residents in a position where they cannot afford to move or evacuate if they wanted to. Often referred to as the “ghetto” or “hood”–which #btw is racist AF; adding to the problem of this pervasive structural racism is that many of these areas are heavily deprived. If you are from the “hood” or have family that grew up or still resides there, then you know first hand about the lack of access to damn near anything. From healthcare to quality schools this proverbial smoke screen of systemic racism has successfully segregated and devalued areas where Black people reside. One of the more harmful factors is the lack of access to healthy food options. From New York City to Los Angeles County, food deserts are at the center of the many disparities plaguing Black communitiestoo. All of this has led to poor environmental conditions that are directly tied to obesity, chronic health issues, infectious disease, and higher mortality rates. It’s no wonder the pandemic has been especially damaging in our communities.

Given the mass chaos and destruction left after Katrina, you’d think there would’ve been a stronger response to combating infrastructure issues that prevent health problems and the loss of life. Deapite the federal government investing billions to fix the levees after Katrina to prevent future devastation nothing “extra” has been done. Thankfully Ida hasn’t wreaked havoc like its predecessor but millions are still without power. Entergy advised that it could be upwards of a month before residents in hardest-hit areas have power. Had the city of New Orleans and our wonderful government(snickers with sarcasm) been more proactive to address issues brought on by structural racism, perhaps things would be different, yet here we are. From redlining to sluggish government assistance in the wake of emergency conditions like Hurricane Katrina, Black communities are especially vulnerable to the inequities that stem from America’s passionate attachment with systemic racism.

So why should “we” aka Black folk be overly concerned about environmental justice and environmental racism? For starters, Black Americans only make up 13.4% of the total population. Yet, we make up vastly higher percentages of communities negatively impacted by racist and discriminatory practices. Practices that have permitted industries to contaminate our communities unchecked and without consequence. In fact, since Katrina, there have been multiple disparities that have led to devastation and increased (sometimes fatal) negative outcomes in communities of color. Need receipts? Don’t worry a quick Google search will render countless information but thankfully we’ve provided some quick stats for you.

If we travel North, the percentage of Black Americans residing in Genesee County Michigan infamous for its Flint water crisis that spanned several years is about 54%. Eastbound, residents in Brooklyn are protesting a pipeline project(remember Keystone) by National Grid that poses serious safety and health concerns. Guess what? Unsurprisingly the population of Black Americans is almost 70% in the Brownsville area. Of course in true “privileged” fashion, residents were not briefed on what the hell was going on as streets were shut down and construction began. And just in case you were side-eyeing if this was simply a coinci-dink or an actual problematic trend, let’s go back down south. Did you know there is a whole entire “sewage crisis” in Alabama? That’s right, residents are legit dealing with some gross shit, specifically in Lowndes County where the population of Black Americans is over 70%. And I won’t even get into the hog waste problem in Duplin County, NC where residents are literally breathing shit. Before you ask, yes, Black Americans are disproportionately affected. Here’s the link so you can gather your own receipts.

As for New Orleans, not much has changed since Katrina and while the Obama Administration made some headway, #45 came in like a wrecking ball and overturned EVERYTHING! 

So what’s the takeaway? Awareness, advocacy, and aggravation in the form of organization and boots on the ground are necessary. Yea it’s cute that the Biden Administration has addressed environmental racism by issuing an executive order back in January but more needs to be done. To put things in perspective, Ida tore through an area in Louisiana known as ‘Cancer Alley’ due to the large number of industrial facilities that handle toxic substances, oil, and petrochemicals that are hazardous to both the environment and humans alike. The area that once served as a plantation is located along the lower Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. There are more than 150 industrial facilities in the small area that spans about 85 miles. The residents living here are predominately Black. Again, here is a link so you can conduct your own research. With widespread power outages that threaten to undermine these facilities, concerns over chemical spills and fires that emit poisonous gas have arisen. All of this stress in the middle of a raging pandemic and crowded hospitals.

Unfortunately, like Katrina and COVID-19, the aftermath of Ida will continue to unearth the disparities plaguing Black Americans. The question is what are we going to do about it?

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