Veterans of the environmental-justice movement, especially those working in New Orleans, are just as appalled [as other commentators on the disaster]– but they are less surprised. Indeed, they’re finding their most chilling fears confirmed.
For years, these advocates have been telling anyone who’d listen that blacks in New Orleans were far more affected by environmental problems than the white folks in, say, the Garden District — and would be far more vulnerable in a disaster. They’ve long realized a truth that the response to Hurricane Katrina seems to be proving: people in power viewed the city’s poorest residents as, says Robert Bullard, “expendable in some sense.”
Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University and author of the forthcoming The Quest for Environmental Justice, has been leading a research project on official responses to environmental disasters with Beverly Wright, executive director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice [note: Link is not working — the Center is housed at Xavier University in New Orleans]. Wright and Bullard say blacks and other people of color are all too often overlooked in such crises.
Katrina brings us back to a question raised frequently in last year’s presidential election, but one we’re often very quick to dismiss: are there two Americas, one inhabited largely by affluent whites, and the other populated primarily by poor people of color? Will the disproportionate level of damage wrought by the storm force issues of environmental justice to the front of the national conversation?