Natural disasters have a very unfortunate way of revealing who are the most vulnerable people in a society.
In the U.S., poor people and people of color often feel the pain of these events “first, worst, and longest,” according to Robert Bullard, a man considered the “father of environmental justice.” He’s been making connections between race, the environment, vulnerability, and inequality for decades. In fact, Bullard found that race is the determining factor of where things like industrial facilities sit or highways and freeways get built, more so than socioeconomic status or land values.
“Racism trumps class when it comes to environmental protection and environmental policy. Who gets the good stuff and who gets the bad stuff? It’s just that simple,” said Bullard, who is a Texas Southern University professor of urban planning and environment policy.
And Black people in New Orleans absolutely received the “bad stuff” prior to, during, and after Hurricane Katrina. Black folks were overly represented when we look at who lived in the areas of New Orleans most prone to flooding and vulnerable to increases in sea level prior to Katrina, and they were more likely to be displaced after the storm.
For Black residents who did stay in New Orleans, they’re currently facing a new wave of oppression in the form of covid-19. Despite Black people making up roughly a third of Louisiana’s total population, approximately 70% of the state’s reported deaths have been a part of the Black community. Health disparities, like increased rates of asthma and diabetes, paired with systemic and structural factors are, in part, responsible for elevated infections, hospitalizations, and deaths. Though comorbidities play a role in these elevated numbers, that’s not the only story. The decades-long history of environmental racism through sighting of polluting factories and redlining, a government-sanction practice of disinvestment in Black communities, are also contributing to worsening the pandemic’s toll.
“The reason why the disparity [exists] is because of all conditions that were created. Not last year, but in some cases 50 years ago, 100 years ago,” said Bullard.
Bullard outlines how environmental justice is integral to racial justice, why he believes access to disaster stimulus dollars in New Orleans during covid-19 will likely follow the same pattern as Hurricane Katrina for Black New Orleanians, and more in the video above.