Race, Place, and Environmental Justice after Hurricane Katrina (Bullard & Wright, ed.)

In his contribution to this collection, John R. Logan best sums up my impression of the post-Katrina recovery efforts. He writes that “what stands out is the failure to formulate a coherent policy” (249). And it’s not for a lack of ideas (and studies – cripes, stop spending money on studies and start spending it on the ground); there are plenty of them here. The best, I think, come from Earthea Nance in her essay, “Making the Case for Community-Based Laboratories: A New Strategy for Environmental Justice.” Her key point, finding ways to give the public direct access to science, is particularly compelling. Sheila J. Webb offers the best explanation for all of the delays: “These planning processes are constrained by efforts to include and involve the appropriate stakeholders in the face of blistering deadlines” (147). What’s clear from this book is that people need to know that their neighborhood is environmentally safe, they need a job, and they need a place to live. The way Katrina has been seized on as an opportunity to re-make public housing is disgraceful. Equally disgraceful is the conduct of the Bush administration (who conveniently and opportunistically rescinded the Davis-Bacon act) and the irony of it being concerned about historical corruption in New Orleans even as they awarded no-bid contracts to companies with close connections to the Republican Party, even when the companies had already failed them and often over-billed them for contracts they were ‘awarded’ in Iraq. The EPA and, to a lesser extent, various insurance companies also take a lot of heat in this collection and justifiably so.

The jargon can be overwhelming at times. The goal to ‘deconcentrate poverty’ – and the related claim that the hurricane did that by displacing so many poor people – is disturbing on so many levels. And the logic behind is completely obliterated in the afterword when Wright and Bullard (better writers than editors – more on this later) state simply that “the best way to break up concentrated poverty is not displacement but concentrated employment at a livable wage” (265).

The book also makes the point repeatedly that Katrina, its impact, and the second wave of its impact (not my lingo) is not historically isolated. Nance, not surprisingly, puts it best: “Following slavery, African-descended people in the region were forced (by law) to live in low-lying areas such as the Lower Ninth Ward, which put them at higher risk of flooding and water-related contamination. This represented another tacit transfer of environmental burdens onto specific population groups” (155).

There is a lot of useful information here. There is research, there are complaints, and there are also proposals. I wish Bullard and Wright had done more to put their contributors in dialogue with one another, in part to limit a lot of the annoying repetition, but mostly because I think more careful editing (i.e., having authors acknowledge and respond to the ideas of the other authors) would have sharpened the argument of the book as a whole.

People’s livelihoods and lives are at stake here. We need some coherency. And soon.


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