Teaching Environmental Crisis and Justice

—Alexa S. Dietrich

When events that are understood to be tragic happen, like the poisoning of the residents of Flint, Michigan, it is typical for we, as human beings, to ask Why? When these events affect whole communities, it then becomes incumbent upon us, as human beings, to ask “How could this happen? because the cause is far less likely to be a random occurrence. Students tend to sense this connection intrinsically, but struggle to think critically about causal factors in situations like Flint.

In classroom discussions, students will often respond to stories of severe environmental pollution in one of two ways. Sometimes they express bewilderment. They feel the inherent injustice but cannot fathom a reason for the damage to people’s health and well-being. The other common response, such as one of my students stated just this week in talking about the toxic waste in Flint’s drinking water, is to say, “It’s almost as if someone planned it.”

It is easy to see conspiracy behind a series of what were, with the benefit of hindsight, a series of despicable acts leading to the potential devastation of an entire community, particularly a community already so disadvantaged and seemingly disposable as Flint. To our shame, in the United States we have long since become terribly inured to the suffering of communities of color, and poor communities.

But while it is easy to imagine a conspiracy of evilly-inclined individuals, such as politicians, plotting to wipe out a community like Flint, this perspective avoids the hard conversations we need to have with our students and others. Explicitly evil intentions are not required in order for great harm to be perpetrated. I am not suggesting that politicians, such as Rick Snyder, are “innocent” in this situation – far from it. Rather, we need to be having frank discussions, leading to actions, about how our culture rewards greed at the expense of human life-especially the lives of the poor and oppressed minorities.

We must, as educators and students, together answer the question, “How could this happen?” The fact is that people with the power to protect the lives of Flint residents chose not to do so. Not once, but many times, people in the position to make decisions about sourcing the water, about testing the water, about reporting the test results and health impacts, made decisions for financial gain or political expedience. And our cultural system (encompassing, e.g., economics, social relations, and ideologies) reinforced the permissibility, the very social and political acceptability of those decisions. There were undoubtedly both legal and moral crimes committed – but accountability for these crimes should weigh heavily on all of us.

In the aftermath of a public health crisis like that in Flint, there are likely to be emerging narratives of the heroic actions of empowered individuals, those who seem to swoop in as community saviors. However, a culture of community engagement cannot, and will not, wait for such heroes, as significant as their contributions may be. As one Flint resident and activist has been quoted as saying, “I decided, I guess I got to figure the science part of this, because you can’t argue with the science.” In the pursuit of environmental justice, there is no substitute for the actions of “non-experts” with local knowledge, and local commitment. But it is also our responsibility to teach and reward this commitment to collective good on a broad scale, more than we currently reward (or at least accept) harmful self-interest, and the violence of disinterest in the well-being of others.

It is also tempting to rely on the explanation of “bad apples,” or individual actors, as is so often used to describe the causes of violence and social suffering perpetrated by institutions. But these explanations are too simple, and release us of our own obligations to care for our fellow human beings. How could this happen? The answer lies in a larger examination of our culture, and our individual roles in it.

Alexa S. Dietrich teaches anthropology at Wagner College, where she is also the Faculty Director of Wagner’s First Year Learning Communities. Her book, The Drug Company Next Door (NYU Press, 2013), won the 2015 Julian Steward Award for the best monograph in environmental and ecological anthropology from the American Anthropological Association.

Putting the Lead in Structural Violence

—Peter C. Little

As anthropologist and disaster studies expert Gregory Button, author of Disaster Culture, recently put it, the unfolding disaster in Flint, Michigan is more than a case of urban lead contamination. Rather, it is a “morality play about structural violence.” [i] He encourages this way of thinking about this emerging national environmental health conflict because this “structural violence” he refers to is about a system of racial discrimination that is a social, political, economic, and infrastructural fact of life in the US. Thinking about the structural violence of lead contamination requires a focus on how lead politics are exacerbated by deep-historical racial discrimination and ongoing poverty politics. As evidence for these lead-related disasters, Button sites a recent study [ii] published in the American Journal of Public Health that reports that while 41.5% of Flint residents are living below the poverty line—compared to the national average in 2014 of 14.8%—nearly 60% are African American. These are some bare facts of inequity that when meshed with toxic substance exposure risk exacerbates the bitter reality of recent Flint water crisis headlines.

The scale, scope, and depth of this man-made disaster are impressive, no doubt justifying the need for an environmental justice perspective on the matters at hand. Robert Bullard, long regarded a leader in the environmental justice community and a major source of inspiration for social scientists working on environmental and social justice conflicts, was recently interviewed about the Flint conflict. [iii] He speaks of a “reality” that goes beyond lead toxicity, drinking water distribution pipes, and a systemically fraudulent city, state, and federal government: “Unequal protection is a reality. The right to clean air, clean water and safe places for kids to play is something that affluent communities take for granted. But many low-income and minority communities don’t get parks, or street lights, or housing code enforcement, or safe drinking water. The cumulative environmental stresses in these neighborhoods create a toxic stew. And then government agencies don’t respond when people complain. The government’s nonresponse to Flint’s water crisis is on the scale of the federal nonresponse to Hurricane Katrina.”

The municipal, state, and federal response and mitigation plan unfolding in Flint also turns our attention to how such disasters are treated more as “technical” water management problems rather than human relations problems. Some critiques of the situation have suggested that “Working with communities to plan for better infrastructure, funding those developments, and adequately enforcing environmental laws will help reduce the number of future similar crises from becoming disasters.” [iv] While continuing to expose the contentious role of Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and his government counterparts in this complex disaster still matters, an underlying politics of uncertainty lingers as impacted residents try to navigate a living amid the circus of accusations and attempts to restore calm. Continuing to deal with what residents themselves are dealing with is of utmost importance and ought to be where local, state, and federal government energy and forms of empathy focus.

[i] See http://foodanthro.com/2016/01/20/the-flint-water-disaster-a-perfect-storm-of-downplaying-denial-and-deceit/

[ii] See http://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/pdf/10.2105/AJPH.2015.303003

[iii] See http://www.juancole.com/2016/01/flints-water-crisis-is-a-blatant-example-of-environmental-injustice.html

[iv] See http://www.counterpunch.org/2016/01/22/the-real-disasters-in-flints-water-crisis/

Peter C. Little is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Rhode Island College. He is the author of Toxic Town: IBM, Pollution, and Industrial Risks (NYU Press, 2014).

Flint’s Sorry Legacy of Environmental Racism

—Carl Zimring

“I am sorry, and I will fix it.”

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder devoted his State of the State speech to the public health catastrophe in Flint that has poisoned its residents with high levels of lead in its water supply.

This failure has many parents, including Snyder. His administration placed an emergency manager in control of Flint’s finances, a manager who who was not elected by its citizens to do the will of the people of the city. Saving money by switching the water supply ignored the well-being of Flint residents, as was the state’s initially dismissive response to health complaints.

Snyder bears responsibility and blame, but he is not alone. The seeds for this catastrophe were sown decades before the 2011 managerial takeover. Deindustrialization and residential segregation shaped a city with low revenue, high unemployment, and the apathy and scorn of white Michiganders. That history allowed the past two years of lead poisoning.

Environmental racism is the systemic placing of toxic burdens upon people of color. It is an example of structural racism – not necessarily the conscious acts of individuals, but ways in which society is structured that creates patterns of unequal burdens.

The health catastrophe in Flint involves reliance on decaying infrastructure due to disinvestment in the region. Why these conditions led to the poisoning of black children involves structural patterns in residential real estate practices, as well as recent political decisions. Environmental Justice movements have fought for safer, healthier communities for decades, including African American residents opposing waste siting in Houston (1978) and Warren County (1982), and Latino residents of Chicago protesting dirty coal-burning power plants in their neighborhoods in this century.

Yet inequalities persist. They are rooted deeply in land-use patterns, employment patterns, and in cultural stereotypes that privilege whites to have clean, safe communities at the expense of people of color. Noxious stereotypes that nonwhite people were somehow less clean than whites emerged in the nineteenth century, stereotypes that have informed who handles waste and where waste is located. Sociologists observed national patterns of inequities by the late twentieth century. Thirty years ago, the report Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States concluded exposure to toxic pollution was determined by race above all other variables, including class, region, and urban/rural density. Ten years ago, a followup report revealed more continuities than change. Flint is further continuity.

The eyes of the nation are on Flint in 2016, but they could easily be on lead-contaminated communities in East New York or Gary, Indiana. Flint is the most conspicuous example of environmental racism in the United States. There are so many examples, however, that a bimonthly journal (Environmental Justice) has filled eight volumes of articles chronicling environmental inequalities. Governor Snyder’s promise that he will fix the present crisis flies in the face of his past actions, the history of Flint, and majority-minority communities across the United States. Recognizing this history is crucial to fixing what ails Flint.

Carl A. Zimring is Associate Professor of Sustainability Studies in the Department of Social Science and Cultural Studies at the Pratt Institute. He is the author of Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States (NYU Press, 2016).

Pushing the Klan Aside in Mississippi: My Memory of Alfred Skip Robinson

—Akinyele Umoja

SKIP ROBINSON; PHOTO BY JIM ALEXANDER

Alfred “Skip” Robinson is one of the most dynamic and charismatic individuals I have ever met. I first heard of Skip after a national demonstration in Tupelo, Mississippi in November of 1978. Several of my comrades in the Black Liberation Movement attended a demonstration and rally organized by Skip and the United League of Mississippi (UL) to support their boycott of the commercial district in Tupelo to challenge police misconduct and economic inequality in Tupelo. At that time the UL under Skip’s leadership had organized a series of boycotts in Mississippi to challenge white supremacy and institutionalized racism.

UNITED LEAGUE T-SHIRT; PHOTO BY JIM ALEXANDER

The UL was probably the most dynamic movement in the Black freedom struggle during the late 1970s. The Black Panthers, SNCC, Republic of New Africa, Us Organization, and other Black Power organizations had been severely crippled by the U.S. government’s COINTEPRO program and other repressive campaigns, as well as by the movement’s own internal conflicts and challenges. Several key activists of the movement had been incarcerated, exiled, even assassinated due to government repression. The oldest Black Civil Rights group, the NAACP, also suffered a decline after being defeated in a U.S. Supreme Court lawsuit. The Reagan Administration began to dismantle some of the gains of the Civil Rights Movement. The late 1970s also witnessed a resurgence of the KKK.

Skip, the UL, and their efforts in Mississippi represented a beacon of hope to the Black freedom struggle of the 1970s. Their boycotts in northern Mississippi towns of Byhalia, Holly Springs, Tupelo, and Okolona stood as effective resistance in a time when social justice fights were in survival mode. The UL’s armed presence and the bold oratory of Skip Robinson, and its other spokespersons Dr. Howard Gunn and Attorney Lewis Myers, was a statement that Mississippi Blacks were not defeated and intimidated by the Klan and other white terrorists. The fact that Robinson and Gunn were still standing unscathed after gun battles with Klansmen was not lost on observers of the UL movement.The UL was probably the most dynamic movement in the Black freedom struggle during the late 1970s. The Black Panthers, SNCC, Republic of New Africa, Us Organization, and other Black Power organizations had been severely crippled by the U.S. government’s COINTEPRO program and other repressive campaigns, as well as by the movement’s own internal conflicts and challenges. Several key activists of the movement had been incarcerated, exiled, even assassinated due to government repression. The oldest Black Civil Rights group, the NAACP, also suffered a decline after being defeated in a U.S. Supreme Court lawsuit. The Reagan Administration began to dismantle some of the gains of the Civil Rights Movement. The late 1970s also witnessed a resurgence of the KKK.

LEW MEYERS (CENTER); PHOTO BY JIM ALEXANDER

I decided to visit Northern Mississippi to witness the UL for myself in August of 1979. Skip had been appointed the Chairman of the Democratic Party in Marshall County, Mississippi. Marshall County was a Black majority county, Skip’s birthplace and home, and the headquarters of the UL. There was a primary election going on the day I arrived in Holly Springs, the seat of Marshall County. I was told this would be the first election in the county’s history that Black people participated as officials at the polls. Prior to the late 1970s, the white minority stole elections by white folks voting multiple times and the ballots of dead people being counted. Intimidation was also used to keep the Black majority from the polls. This would be the county’s first, free and fair election. My host was UL organizer Jim Agnew. Brother Agnew and I arrived in Holly Springs early that morning before the polls opened. We approached Skip on the street arguing with a police officer. The officer arrested Skip for disorderly conduct. Everyone figured Skip was arrested to disrupt Black voter mobilization and scare Black people from coming to the polls. I also witnessed groups of white men standing in a belligerent and menacing manner near the polling place to intimidate Blacks.

KKK AT TUPELO POLICE STATION, 1978; PHOTO BY JIM ALEXANDER

Skip was released from jail right before the polls closed. I escorted Skip to the UL office, which was near the Northern Mississippi Legal Services located right in the main county square. While I stood next to Skip, his primary security guard, a young man probably in his late 20s, came down the stairs of the Legal Services office. The bodyguard said he needed to go home and check on his family. He wanted Skip to come upstairs, outside of public view, so he could give him back the .357 magnum handgun the bodyguard carried concealed for the UL leader’s protection. It was probably the same gun Skip wore stuck in his pants during California speaking engagements. Standing on the street of the north side of the main square of Holly Springs, Skip boldly said “Give it to me right here (on the street). I want them (the White supremacists) to know I have a gun!” The young man hesitantly passed Skip the handgun right there on the street. I was humbled when Skip later asked me to draft his press statement detailing his arrest. I was honored to be of the assistance of this impressive leader.

robinson

I had the pleasure and opportunity to write about Skip and the UL in the book We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement (NYU Press, 2013). In fact, had I not met Skip Robinson, the book may have not been written. I grew up during the Civil Rights and Black Power movement in Los Angeles, California. Most of my generation in northern urban centers had no idea that armed Black men, women, and youth defended the community and themselves in human rights battles in the South. Our only image of Black resistance in the South was the nonviolent movement, which many of us could not relate to. Other than the nonviolent movement, the major response we saw of southern Black folks was being in fear and intimidation to white terror. Skip Robinson and the UL provided me a living example and played a major role in destroying the stereotype of an exclusively “nonviolent” southern Black freedom movement in my mind. Skip Robinson and the UL provided an inspiration to write and tell our story. More must be done to reconstruct and illuminate the story of Skip Robinson and the United League. More must be done to recognize and remember his contribution to challenge injustice and improve the lives of his people. It is an inspiring, uplifting saga and a story of courage and commitment to social justice that changed Mississippi and inspired others like me to keep on pushing.

Akinyele Omowale Umoja is Professor and Chair of the Department of African-American studies at Georgia State University, where he teaches courses on the history of the civil rights and Black Power movements and other social movements. He has been a community activist for over 40 years. He is the author of We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement (NYU Press, 2013).

[This piece originally appeared on wpconvo.com, the website of the play Byhalia, Mississippi.]

 

3nder and the Threesome Imaginary

—Mimi Schippers

unnamedThere is a new app for hooking up, and it is marketed as a tool for finding “…kinky, curious and openminded singles and couples around you.” It’s called 3nder (pronounced thrinder), and according to a recent New York Post article, it is “built for threesomes.”

Riffing on of the wildly successful Grindr and Tinder, CEO Dimo Trifonov said that he came up with the idea because his girlfriend “confessed an attraction to women.” Here is how the app is described in a press release:

Our perception of love is evolving beyond social norms. 3nder helps singles and couples open up to their sexualities, elevated away from social pressure. It is a place where humans do not have to abide by the artificial rules of an ageing morality. It gives curious couples and singles a beautiful space to show their true selves, explore their sexualities, and discover like-minded humans.

It is true that in a mononormative world—one in which the monogamous couple is the only legitimate way to do emotional and sexual intimacy, sex is supposed to involve a twosome, not a threesome—that is two and only two people. Three in the bed (or on the floor or in the park) is outside of mainstream ideas of “normal” sex. In this way, threesomes do push against social norms.

However, if we look closer at what I call “the threesome imaginary,” or the fantasy of threesomes presented to us through on-line discussions of 3nder, those pesky social norms and social pressures are not so easily expunged.

For instance, reports about 3nder provide a consistent picture of what we mean by threesomes. According to Gabe Stutman, the app is perfect for “those seeking out novel sexual experiences.” As described on the iTunes website, 3nder is “about feeling comfortable with your curiosity about sexuality.”

Presented as a “novel experience,” or a “curiosity,” threesomes are constructed as a temporary suspension of normalcy.

What is this implied “normal?”

The Couple. Rather than challenge our perception of love as promised in the press release, threesomes are presented as something couples do to take a temporary walk on the wild side together. Couples, and the singles they invite in, are what define a threesome.

Moreover, according to representations of 3nder threesomes, the couple is heterosexual and the person invited into their bed is a woman. Trifonov, remember, came up with the idea for the app because his girlfriend wanted to have sex with a woman. The photo accompanying the New York Post article depicts a young, conventionally attractive man flanked on both sides by two young women. An article about the app on Salon.com includes a photo of a man and two women as does the one on Cosmopolitan’s website.

An article posted on Vice Channel’s Motherboard begins with an anecdote about two 27-year old women who used the app to search for a single guy with whom they could have a threesome. The photo features–you guessed it–a man between two women. The only article about 3nder that I could find that did not include an image of two women and a man is on the Huffington Post website. That image shows three men.

Where are the threesomes that include two men and one woman? If the couple using 3nder is heterosexual, according to media representations of threesomes, inviting another man into the mix is not a part of 3nder’s new world of love “beyond social norms.”

The reasons for this omission are many and, as I argue in Beyond Monogamy, most of them revolve around protecting hetero-masculinity from any queer threats that might come from the poly margins. There is no scenario in the mainstream threesome imaginary where a woman in a heterosexual couple gets to watch some boy-on-boy action between her husband or boyfriend and another guy, and there certainly is no room in hetero-masculinity for getting it on with another man while a wife or girlfriend watches. In other words, the implicit message conveyed by these articles (but not by 3nder) is that 3nder is there to fulfill every straight guy’s fantasy—a threesome with two women.

Also missing are black or brown people, for only images of white bodies accompany discussions of 3nder. According to these representations, there are no black or brown, let alone interracial 3nder threesomes. In other words, not only does the threesome imaginary preserve the couple and hetero-masculinity, it also conflates whiteness with sexiness, sexual subjectivity, and erotic adventure as harmless fun.

Despite the implicit messages about gender and race conveyed through internet reporting about 3nder, I’m enthusiastic about the potentialities of 3nder. I think there is potential for threesomes and other forms of poly sex and relationships to shake up social norms about love and relationships. My enthusiasm, however, is cautious. Unless we re-write our narratives about what a threesome looks like, we’re bound to follow the same race and gender “rules of an old morality” that 3nder promises to help us all overcome.

Mimi Schippers is Associate Professor of Sociology and Gender and Sexuality Studies at Tulane University. She is author of Beyond Monogamy: Polyamory and the Future of Polyqueer Sexualities (NYU Press, forthcoming 2016) and Rockin’ Out of the Box: Gender Maneuvering in Alternative Hard Rock.

A Texas teenager’s arrest points to a deep and growing trend of Islamophobia

—Moustafa Bayoumi

By now you’ve heard about Ahmed Mohamed, the 14-year-old Muslim-American kid from Texas who built a clock at home and brought it to school to show to his teacher, only to be arrested on the ridiculous suspicion that his invention was a bomb.

Young Ahmed was handcuffed, taken to police headquarters, fingerprinted and questioned without his parents present. During his interrogation, as The Washington Post reports, the officers repeatedly brought up his last name.

Here is an inventive Sudanese-American teenager in a NASA T-shirt whose curiosity and ingenuity are rewarded with handcuffs and punishment.

Things turned out well for Mohamed in the end — President Obama tweeted at him, and Mohamed is fielding invitations to visit MIT and Harvard.

Cool clock, Ahmed. Want to bring it to the White House? We should inspire more kids like you to like science. It’s what makes America great.

— President Obama (@POTUS) September 16, 2015

But the national attention his absurd arrest has garnered is an exception. Most of the time, bigotry against Muslims goes unremarked upon or even gets rewarded.

The same week that Mohamed brought his clock to school, vandals spray-painted hate-filled messages on a mosque in Kentucky. Days earlier in a Chicago suburb, Inderjit Singh Mukker, a Sikh-American father of two, was repeatedly punched in the face while his attacker yelled, “Terrorist, go back to your country, bin Laden.” (Sikhs are often the victims of anti-Muslim hate crimes because of their beards, turbans and skin color.) On this year’s anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, a Florida gun shop owner offered $25 off any gun purchased online with the coupon code “Muslim.

In case you think anti-Muslim sentiment is limited to the fringes, consider this University of Connecticut study. Researchers there last year found that job applicants with identifiably Muslim names received “32 percent fewer e-mails and 48 percent fewer phone calls than applicants from the control group, far outweighing measurable bias against the other faith groups.”

Official agencies reflect these attitudes, too. The New York Police Department was caught spying a few years ago on every facet of Muslim life around the region. This was massive, expensive surveillance performed without even the hint of any criminal activity. And federal policies such as the Countering Violent Extremism initiative stigmatize Muslim-Americans as terrorists, even though the number of terrorist attacks that Muslim-Americans have committed are miniscule and far fewer than those that right-wing extremists have perpetrated.

Islamophobia infests our politics and our society. Republican presidential contender South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham supports the surveillance of mosques, while former Democratic presidential candidate Wesley Clark recently proposed the reintroduction of internment camps for “radicalized Americans.” Muslims across the country regularly face opposition in constructing their houses of worship and are routinely demonized in the media.

What most Americans don’t realize is how exhausting it is to live a Muslim-American life in this environment. Many see anti-Muslim attitudes not as bigoted but as common sense. Ordinary things that Muslims do, such as cleverly making a clock at home to show off at school, can be interpreted as suspicious and threatening.

Islamophobia in the United States today is real and it’s growing. Like Ahmed Mohamed, we need to be inventive, and find solutions that will help our country live up to its ideals.

Moustafa Bayoumi is the author of This Muslim American Life (NYU Press, 2015), and How Does It Feel To Be a Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America, which won an American Book Award and the Arab American Book Award for Nonfiction. He is Professor of English at Brooklyn College, City University of New York (CUNY).

[This piece originally appeared in The Progressive.]

Katrina’s Lessons: Learned and Unlearned

—Robert Verchick

In the last few years, I’ve commemorated the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in a new way: by pedaling along the self-guided “Levee Disaster Bike Tour.” I begin beneath muscular oaks along New Orleans’ Bayou St. John, and I weave my way around potholes and waterfowl to pay silent respects near three prominent levee-breach sites, each marked with a commemorative plaque. Ten years ago, those breaches, combined with more than 50 others to bring a great American city to its knees.

I lived in New Orleans then, and evacuated to Houston for six months. Like so many others I resolved to return to my flooded home and rebuild. I did just that, and for a decade since I’ve taught graduate students about disaster policy and the central role Katrina plays in shaping our understanding of catastrophic hazards. I’ve learned a lot along the way, as have my students, I hope. But I can’t say the same for policy makers. A decade after the levees burst, some of the most important lessons are still just soaking in. Here is what I hope we will remember.

New Orleans was swamped by an engineering failure, not just a storm, and other cities are waiting in line. Katrina was a monster, but much of its rage had dissipated by the time it reached land. When the levees broke, the storm was within that system’s design specifications. To its credit, the Army Corps of Engineers acknowledged the failings in its design and construction and has toiled since to build a supersized complex of ramparts, gates, and pumps as sophisticated as any flood-control project in the world.

But other time bombs tick across the country. An estimated 100,000 miles of levees protect tens of millions of households, from Sacramento to Miami to New York City, with nearly 1 million of those households in Houston. Yet we know surprisingly little about their fitness. In response to Katrina, the federal government is developing an inventory of all federal and many non-federal levees. Of those rated so far, only 9 percent have been found to be in “acceptable” condition. In 2013, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation’s levees a D- and estimated that repairs would cost more than $100 billion.

But even that isn’t enough. U.S. flood-control projects are normally designed to withstand only a so-called “100-year” event, or more accurately, an event with a 1-percent chance of occurring in any given year. If you own a home for the span of a 30-year mortgage, you have a 26-percent chance of being under water in the literal sense before you pay it off. By comparison, dikes in the Netherlands, where they know from floodwaters, are designed to withstand events that are up to 100 times less probable.

Social burdens linked to income and race make everything worse. As Americans learned watching television broadcasts of their fellow citizens, many of them poor and African-American, helicoptered off battered rooftops or trapped in the Superdome, disasters do not ignore social inequalities; they amplify them. Low-income and minority populations, for instance, are less likely to have first-aid kits, emergency food supplies, fire extinguishers, and evacuation funds, but more likely to suffer property damage, injury, and death. In the aftermath of Katrina, the damaged areas of New Orleans were 75 percent African-American, while undamaged areas were 46 percent African-American. Government assistance programs—crucial in the wake of large catastrophes—tend to favor middle-class homeowners over less affluent renters or the homeless.

Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy inspired a variety of indices and mapping platforms to identify “social vulnerability.” As with the federal inventory of levees, this information is critical. But, still, I wonder whether it will be used to its best effect. Will such mapping lead to safer homeless shelters, multi-lingual responders in immigrant areas, better public transportation for the elderly, better evacuation plans? If not, what’s the point?

Disaster is backlit by climate change. Experts agree that human-caused global warming is increasing average temperatures, disrupting rain patterns, and raising the seas. While scientists can’t link any individual storm to climate change, Katrina was perhaps the first to open the public’s imagination to what life on a warming planet could really mean. Thus the Federal Emergency Management Agency now incorporates climate impacts into its disaster recovery framework (now being followed in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy) and has plans to fold climate projections into the flood maps that determine insurance needs across the country.

What Katrina really teaches is that we are all in this world together, surrounded by vulnerabilities. On the frame of my ten-speed is a bumper sticker with the motto, “Be a New Orleanian—Wherever You Are.” What you didn’t know, is that you may have little choice.

Robert Verchick teaches at Loyola University New Orleans and Tulane University, is the president of the Center for Progressive Reform, and is the author of Facing Catastrophe: Environmental Action for a Post-Katrina World (Harvard University Press, 2010) and Feminist Legal Theory: A Primer (NYU Press, 2006).

[This piece originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle.]

Remembering Katrina

This week marks the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. In reflection, we’d like to highlight a few recent books that explore the effects of the historic storm and its impact on the resilient city of New Orleans.

Mardi Gras, jazz, voodoo, gumbo, Bourbon Street, the French Quarter—all evoke that place that is unlike any other: New Orleans. But what is it that makes New Orleans ‘authentic’? In Authentic New Orleans, Kevin Fox Gotham explains how New Orleans became a tourist town, a spectacular locale known as much for its excesses as for its quirky Southern charm. Beginning in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina amid the whirlwind of speculation and dread surrounding the rebuilding of the city, Gotham provides a unique interpretation of New Orleans, one that goes beyond its veneer and moves into the rich cultural roots of this unique American landmark.


 

In Critical Rhetorics of Race, a groundbreaking collection edited by Michael G. Lacy and Kent A. Ono, scholars seek to examine the complicated and contradictory terrain of racial rhetoric, critiquing our depictions of race in innovative and exciting ways. In the powerful first chapter, Michael G. Lacy and Kathleen C. Haspel take us back in time to the post-apocalyptic New Orleans of 2005 to explore the media’s troubling representations of black looters following the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina.


 

When the images of desperate, hungry, thirsty, sick, mostly black people circulated in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it became apparent to the whole country that race did indeed matter when it came to government assistance. The Wrong Complexion for Protection illuminates the long history of failed government responses to a range of environmental and health threats to African Americans. Drawing on compelling case studies and jaw-dropping statistics, the book is a sobering exploration of the brutal realities of institutionalized racism in disaster response and recovery.