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What Did Hurricane Katrina Teach Us About Environmental Racism?

Hurricane Katrina revealed institutional failures, 17 years later environmental justice remains a matter of Black life and death.
What Did Hurricane Katrina Teach Us About Environmental Racism?
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“George Bush doesn’t care about Black people.”

On September 2, 2005, Kanye West went from famous to infamous when he chided racist systems (and a racist president) for failing victims of Hurricane Katrina, during a nationally televised benefit concert.

Katrina demonstrated the increasing dangers of climate change in the United States. The lead up and response showed how racial and economic inequality, political corruption, and corporate greed work together to exacerbate environmental calamities.

The week before, the storm and the resulting floods wreaked havoc on the Gulf Coast, taking an estimated 2,000 lives, destroying over 200,000 homes, and displacing over a million people. Nearly 70 percent of the poor people impacted were Black, and it decimated the Black middle class. It was a devastating crime of environmental injustice.

Before the storm made landfall, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco declared a state of emergency—a full day before the White House and Mississippi did. While Blanco pleaded for aid, President George W. Bush vacationed nearby in Texas as the storm hit. The Louisiana National Guard requested 700 buses from FEMA—the agency sent only 100. And it took a week for flood survivors to be evacuated. Black people were significantly more likely than other groups to believe that racial bias was a factor. Kanye simply said out loud what many of us were already thinking.

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The public embarrassment should’ve been a wake-up call. It wasn’t.

Corporate sharks i.e., private contractors came bearing false promises of restoring and helping communities. Their aim was not to restore but exploit, permanently displace and reimagine New Orleans as a gilded version of its former self. Environmental justice took a back seat to maximizing profit while doing the bare minimum.

A decade after the storm, nearly 80 percent of white residents of New Orleans said that Louisiana had “mostly recovered” from the storm, while nearly 60 percent of Black people said the opposite. It’s easy to see how people could feel so differently when recovery efforts had been so drastically uneven: less than half of the city’s Black residents were able to get back into their homes within a year versus 70 percent of the city’s white residents able to return home. This August, Brad Pitt and his charity “Make It Right,” agreed to a $20.5 million settlement to owners of faulty post-Katrina houses in the historically Black and low-income Lower Ninth Ward. Homes plagued by mold, electrical fires, and unclean water.

Today, our communities across America face heightened environmental dangers every day. In Baltimore, where I live, predominantly Black neighborhoods face regular flooding, causing damage to housing and cars, cutting off transportation access, and washing harmful waste and chemicals from the street into living rooms. This happens because of disinvestment, a lack of maintenance of storm drains and other infrastructure. For decades, residents’ concerns and complaints failed to generate any improvement. Now, with climate change leading to “Once in a century” storms almost every year, we need to invest in our infrastructure before it’s too late.

Black families, people of color and indigenous communities disproportionately face a number of health and economic challenges– and early deaths– from environmental injustices. They stem from preventable conditions linked to infrastructure breakdowns and corporate exploitation. And when environmental catastrophes occur, these communities are also prime targets for land seizures and other types of resource extraction.

Here’s the good news: President Biden just signed the Inflation Reduction Act, a landmark bill that will aid in fighting climate change, lower health care costs and lower prescription drug costs. Billions will also go towards block grants for infrastructure and rebuilds that can help safeguard neighborhoods and stimulate local economies through labor, business growth and lowered associated health costs.

These are good steps, great steps in fact, which will have very real benefits on the ground. It’s significant that both acknowledge the role of corporations in harming communities. Because of this, we can look to go further.

What Did Hurricane Katrina Teach Us About Environmental Racism?
Prisoners wait to be transported by boat from the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court on Tulane Street, New Orleans, Louisiana, due to extensive flooding in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, circa September 2005. (Photo by Michael Appleton/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

The Environmental Justice For All Act, passed out of the House of Representatives expands on the work championed by the late Representative John Lewis. If passed in the Senate, the Act expands the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to prohibit discrimination based on disparate community impacts and explicitly seeks to address generations of cumulative environmental racism and infrastructures failures.

It’s time to demand corporate and government reparations and retroactive disaster debt forgiveness for families permanently displaced and financially impacted by Hurricane Katrina. Also, for acts of environmental injustice in “sacrifice zones” like Cancer Alley, Louisiana, East Chicago, Indiana and neighborhoods in Chicago like McKinley Park, where communities have been obliterated by pollutants.

Also, in order to truly reign in corporate power and deter exploitative practices, the government has to break up and disrupt over bloated private institutions. A major driver of price inflation is corporate consolidation. When there are no options for a region or neighborhood, it’s easier for companies to exploit the market. They can determine the conditions of engagement as well as set exorbitant prices, undercut wages, lock out competition, control small businesses’ access to markets and disempower that community.

Though the number of Black-owned employer businesses grew at a higher rate than the U.S. average between 2012 and 2017, those businesses were more likely to be significantly smaller. And despite Black women consistently being the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs in the Internet age, Black women still only receive 0.27 percent of all venture dollars in the U.S.—and that makes a significant increase from the decade prior. Removing barriers for local, community-owned businesses that are there for the long-haul and are invested in the people is the best way to restore and fortify communities.

The right to political, economic, cultural, and environmental self-determination should belong to all people. Environmental justice and corporate accountability must be core to our collective consciousness in order to ensure a future for our children. Seventeen years after Hurricane Katrina, America has much more to do to show that it does in fact care about Black people.

Brandi Collins-Dexter is associate director of research at the The Technology and Social Change Project (TaSC) housed in Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. As former Senior Campaign Director of media, culture and economic justice at Color Of Change, she led a number of successful and highly visible campaigns for corporate and government accountability and has also worked extensively with Silicon Valley companies on key corporate policy changes. Collins-Dexter has testified in front of congress on the issue of online privacy, and is a regular commentator in the media on racial justice and tech. Her soon-to-be released book Black Skinhead: Reflections on Blackness and Our Political Future (Celadon, September 2022), uses a pop culture lens— and draws stories from the oral history of Black potential voters and stakeholders ranging from ages 17 to 108—  to understand the history and trajectory of Black political, economic and social power.