Written by: Morgan Franklin
Cartoon by Rob Rogers, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Editors note: This semester, Melissa Harris-Perry is teaching the course “Politics of Environmental Justice.” Each week, student and AJC Research Fellow Morgan Franklin brings this class to you, sharing part of the week’s lecture, readings, and discussion. You can catch up on all the This Week in Class blog entries here.
This week in class we looked at environmental justice in the context of disaster. Our case study for the week came from an event extremely close to home: recovery initiatives in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. For this week’s meeting, my classmates and I read Race, Place and Environmental Justice After Hurricane Katrina, edited by Robert Bullard and Beverly Wright. This examination of the poor planning and inadequate response extant throughout the city after the storm showcases serious institutional failings. Additionally, the text highlights the disparities in disaster response between differing communities and the subsequent ramifications for environmental justice.
Professor Harris-Perry began class by asking us about our preconceived notions of disaster. We engaged with questions like, “What constitutes a disaster?” and “Is resiliency a citizenship right?” Then we returned to the question that we have been asking all semester- “Why talk about race?” This led us to a discussion of post-disaster media treatment, and how television coverage of the recovery depicted a disproportionate amount of suffering by black New Orleanians, as opposed to citizens of different races. How that suffering was treated in the media played a critical role in the public understanding of the disaster. In one infamous moment of coverage, CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer commented on the victims of the hurricane by stating, “They are so poor, and they are so black.” Race matters, as Prof. would soon show, due to the way it impacted what Americans thought, saw, and felt.
To understand this, it’s useful to draw a comparison between the public response to Hurricane Katrina and to another national disaster. Take, for example, the devastating attack on September 11th. In the aftermath of the attack, the National Opinion Research Center conducted a National Tragedy Study in which they found there was no racial disparity in post-disaster emotional response. This result did not hold true in the aftermath of Katrina. As Prof. demonstrated with her research on perceptual differences following the storm, there was a vast racial gap in public opinion regarding the relationship between disaster response and race. In the Racial Attitudes and Katrina Disaster Study by Prof. Harris-Perry, Michael Dawson, and Cathy Cohen, 1,252 Americans were shown one of two pictures: a white family in post-Katrina New Orleans, or a black family in post-Katrina New Orleans. This picture was paired with either the statement “More than 100,000 Americans were displaced from their homes as a result of the Katrina disaster” or with the statement “More than 100,000 refugees were displaced from their homes as a result of the Katrina disaster”
When given the framing of a black family and the term refugee (which reflected how most of the media framed their post-Katrina narrative), 79% of African Americans nationwide supported spending whatever was necessary to rebuild and return citizens to their homes. With this same framing, only 33% of white Americans supported such a measure. Survey respondents were also asked about rapper Kanye West’s comment that ”George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” Fifty-six percent of white respondents determined his remark to be unjustified, while 91% of black respondents asserted that there was at least some justification for his comments. Additionally, while only 24% of white respondents believed that government response would have been faster if victims were white, a full 84% of African American respondents believed that to be the case. These perceptions point to deeper racial implications beyond just disaster relief.
We then transitioned into a conversation about the actual aftermath of the storm and the environmental justice concerns at play. As a local classmate who lived through the immediate recovery stage asserted, the environmental impact of the storm was tangible. It was impossible to walk around in the aftermath of the storm and not struggle with the debris, the stench, and the overall feeling of contamination. In an effort to organize waste management, debris-dumping sites were created. Following the pattern we’ve discovered in our previous readings, these sites were located primarily in communities of color and low socioeconomic status.
When Mayor Ray Nagin’s began planning a comprehensive recovery, he called upon individuals from outside of the city to assist him in creating the blueprint. Though these planners were knowledgeable and well-meaning, many New Orleanians were livid at the prospect of a proposed recovery that did not include their voices. In class, we debated whether it mattered that most of the city’s locals were unhappy. On the one hand, of course it mattered. This city is their home and there are negative externalities associated with an unhappy citizenry. On the other hand, the recovery plan was a time sensitive issue; changes were necessary and stakeholder input was often difficult to obtain with displaced residents scattered all across the country. Through this discussion, Prof. asked us to consider that the question of citizen input is both critical and nuanced.
At the end of class we returned to a discussion of the Racial Attitudes and Katrina Disaster Study and how we analyze the results. We have evidence of noted racial disparity in public opinions about governmental response to the disaster. As Prof. asserted in class, it is highly unlikely that the ineffective response to Katrina stemmed from racist intent. It could very well be that complicated and correlating factors led to disparate impact and the disproportionate amount of suffering within marginalized communities. But does it matter?
Prof. highlighted that perception is a reality that deserves to be addressed. Eighty-four percent of black citizens surveyed from across the country believed that the government treated black citizens as second-class because of their race. Isn’t that a political truth that deserves attention? The validity of the statement matters less than the fact that such an overwhelming majority of respondents felt it was accurate. As she closed her lecture, Prof. shared some of the responses of black citizens at a city meeting following Katrina. Reflecting a repeated sentiment at the meeting, one man stated, “I am a taxpayer and a voter. I placed my trust in the elected officials to do what is right but instead we got nothing. We are not refugees, we are Americans.” This is a demand to be treated as an equal citizen deserving of full and accurate recognition.
Environmental justice revolves around the assertion that all citizens, equal under the law and deserving of equal protection, should not be subject to inferior environmental protection or additional environmental stressors. This case study in disaster in our own city served as an important reminder for our class about the basics of EJ advocacy and the ways in which the specter of inequality continues to haunt our political realities. Thanks for reading and, as always, for joining us this week in class.
The “This Week in Class” blog series is written by Morgan Franklin, AJC Head Research Fellow and a student in Professor Harris-Perry’s class. You can download the full class syllabus, and then join Morgan every week as she invites to think about the class lecture and join the discussion.