Social smog: Environmental racism in New Orleans

CBD skyline (Photo by: Jared Gladstein)

In the summer of 2018, trudging through the streets of New York City and its burrows, I couldn’t help but feel demoralized. Most doors I knocked on were answered with an impatient glare and defensive tone. Few asked why I was standing on their doorstep with a clipboard. Those who did, only gave me an average of twenty seconds to plead my case before slamming the door in my face.

I was canvassing for the New York Public Interest Research Group, a non-profit consumer and environmental advocacy organization based in Soho Manhattan campaigning for a moratorium on all new fossil fuel infrastructure proposals [2]. Like the Lorax, I fruitlessly spoke for the trees, trying to convince people to become a member of our organization by donating any amount above $30. In 2015 we managed to ban fracking in the state of New York along with other smaller but equally important victories; it felt like incredibly rewarding work.

However, walking seven miles a day through Manhattan, Brooklyn and all over Westchester County allowed me to observe first-hand the topography of the area and similarly, the demographics. On the way to my “turf” I couldn’t help but analyze the neighborhoods I drove and or walked through. Was it a nice neighborhood? Is it too nice of a neighborhood? Ultimately, what financial opportunities is this community going to offer?

After weeks of operating with this mindset, I was able to size up a neighborhood with uncanny accuracy.

Remoteness of the town’s location, roads, buildings, schools and obviously homes all factored into my perception of the neighborhood. Clear as could be, less sought-after homes were positioned farther inland or in the center of the city nestled so close together they’d be lucky to have a driveway. Furthermore, there was a clear indirect correlation between quality of life of an area and presence of minorities. These communities were almost always in less than desirable locations that were vulnerable to environmental and human-caused hazards. Whether it be a landfill, power-plant or flood zone, individuals subjected to these conditions have no perceived influence over the prevention and reparation of their communities in a physical nor political sense.

New Orleans is no different.

In fact, New Orleans seems to accentuate  the issues that I experienced in New York. The most discussed example is the environmental injustice experienced leading up to and post Hurricane Katrina. It wasn’t until 2017 that environmental injustice was systematically analyzed from the perspective of survivors [1]. Such a delayed interest in addressing an issue of this proportion puts into perspective the little attention catastrophes like this, and how quickly it is forgotten on the national scale.

People of color had been speaking out about this lack of initiative for 12 years before society chose to acknowledge it in literature.

Even then, studies of post-Katrina environmental injustice are described as scanty and or non-existent [1]. According to Tierney (2006, p.118), immigrants and minority groups generally respond differently to disasters than their white and native-born counterparts. Most importantly, minority communities also express group-specific grievances, such as perceived  environmental  racism or injustice  accompanying disasters [1].  Where I argue that there is discord, is in the perception of intentional neglect by the white-upper-class. In the communities I canvassed in New York, I observed this skepticism on a daily basis, from both ends of the socio-economic spectrum. It wasn’t about whether or not they agreed with the issue, it was primarily about the economics; which I found to be consistent in almost every area I visited.

Mentioning money to somebody at the door, rich or poor, erases anything previously said from memory. Mental walls go up. The bargaining hat is an intriguing phenomenon because it acts the same way as blinders on a horse. The irony is so incredibly dense that it’s hard to know where to start. The organization I worked for needed funding to keep the lights in our office on and for any chance of having influence in the lobbying industry [2]. We had to make change from the inside out, which meant participating in the very institutions that we condemn and attempt to dissolve. This has adverse consequences on the perception of the organization by others as well as the economics of the situation. By doing everything in our power to make change for what we believe is for the better of everyone (not just the the upper class) is overshadowed by the indirect consequences of the means we take to justify the ends.

Environmental injustice in New Orleans fits the bill perfectly in that the abhorrent conditions minorities are subjected to are a product of institutional racism than direct discrimination. It’s also an example of how an individual or small group can mar the reputation of countless others mindlessly associated with one another based off race, ethnicity and belief. The levees lining the Mississippi River notoriously failed during Hurricane Katrina, flooding the 9th Ward. When the area with the highest concentration of minorities and lowest concentration of wealth suffers extremely from faulty safety measures, lives are uprooted and fingers are pointed. People are often to blame, but the truth is there are gray areas that are completely ignored by everyone, or at least not vocalized. For example, in New Orleans, “…because there are no federal requirements for land-use restrictions or mitigation in the non-SFHA [special flood hazard area] area, many owners and public officials erroneously assume that the absence of requirements for action can be equated with absence of risk, when in reality, the risk may actually be greater in some areas of the SFHA” [4]. It just so happens that humans love to accept information at face value, perhaps because we are irrationally trusting towards others. We assume that because something isn’t specifically stated that it is not of concern.  It’s a confusing concept to acknowledge an “absence of thought” which is why the issue of environmental racism is able to remain hidden under the gilded optimism of the American Government.

The reality is that policy loopholes like this one that remain unnoticed, which catalyze socio-economic controversy that quickly descends into a finger pointing match, while the root of the issue stays socially camouflaged. My job last summer provided me with profound insight that allowed me to examine these issues and articles pertaining to it with experiential knowledge; something I believe America’s sedentary majority does not want or have the opportunity to access. Talking to at least fifty people a day gave me a Rolodex of perspectives with which to better understand social dynamics in America and how the effects of the capitalist pyramid we live under can be circumvented if the cycle of poverty, fueled by institutional racism, is acknowledged and dealt with.

 

This piece was written for the class alternative journalism, which is taught by Kelley Crawford at Tulane University. 

REFERENCES

[1]Adeola, Francis, and Steven Picou. “Hurricane Katrina-Linked Environmental Injustice: Race, Class, and Place

Differentials in Attitudes.” Wiley Online Library, 2017, onlinelibrary-wiley-com.libproxy.tulane.edu/doi/epdf/10.1111/disa.12204.

 

[2]“Policy Priorities.” New York Public Interest Research Group, 2017,

www.nypirg.org/.

 

[3]Manias, Beatrice. “Environmental Racism in Louisiana.” Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, 2018, www.gnofairhousing.org/2018/04/12/fair-housing-and-environmental-justice/.

 

[4]nap.edu. “‘Levees and the National Flood Insurance Program: Improving

Policies and Practices.’” The National Academics Press, 2013,

www.nap.edu/read/18309/chapter/8#98.

 

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