Black History Month: “Wrong Complexion for Protection” when disasters strike

—Robert D. Bullard and Beverly Wright

In thinking about Black History Month and the great strides that have been made in the arenas of civil rights and racial equality, an immense body of work about the glaring racial disparities in employment, education, income and wealth, housing and health care comes to mind. However, far less has been written or publicized about the glaring inequities that exist in government response to natural and human-induced disasters. Decades before Hurricane Katrina drowned New Orleans and devastated the U.S. Gulf Coast, millions of African Americans learned the hard way that waiting for the government can be hazardous to their health and health of their community.

In Race, Place and Environmental Justice After Hurricane Katrina: Struggles to Reclaim, Rebuild, and Revitalize New Orleans and the Gulf Coast (Westview Press, 2009), we documented that racial disparities exist in disaster response, cleanup, rebuilding, reconstruction, and recovery. The lethargic and inept emergency response that followed Katrina exposed institutional flaws, poor planning, and false assumptions that are built into the emergency response and homeland security plans and programs.

We expanded this analysis and focus in The Wrong Complexion for Protection (NYU Press, 2012), a book that places the government response to natural and man-made disasters in historical context over the past eight decades—from the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 to the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.  Here, we compare and contrast how the government responded to emergencies, including environmental and public health emergencies, toxic contamination, industrial accidents, bioterrorism threats, and natural and human-induced disasters that disproportionately affect African Americans.

Our analysis chronicles history lessons not learned, government failures, and inadequate and inequitable government response to natural and human-induced disasters and emergencies.  Our goal is to shed new light on issues of health equity, environmental and climate justice, spatial and racial vulnerability, and the government’s role in providing equal protection under the law for all Americans, without regard to race, color, national origin, or income.

Too often, African Americans have experienced slow, unequal or no response from various local, state, and federal government agencies on a range of emergencies.  This scenario has often been the rule—not the exception—as in the case of the USDA and the discriminatory treatment of black farmers and the slow and inept response by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) to protect black landowners in Dickson, Tennessee, tagged the “poster child” for environmental racism.

The simple but urgent message of this book is equity, justice and fairness. Centuries of black exploitation, experimentation, drug testing, and forced surgeries have engendered mistrust of government, medical establishment, and biomedical research. Fairness is essential to building trust and reaching any meaningful solution to natural and human-induced disasters and for achieving sustainability and homeland security.  Fairness matters. It matters how we design and plan strategies for addressing public health emergencies, toxic contamination, industrial accidents and spills, earthquakes, extreme weather events such as hurricanes, floods, tornados, droughts, heat waves, and bioterrorism threats. Making disaster response equitable is a matter of civil and human rights, and in the spirit of Black History Month, we must strive for equality in the sectors which have historically excluded or otherwise exploited African Americans.

Robert D. Bullard (Dean of the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University in Houston) and Beverly Wright (founding director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Dillard University, New Orleans) co-authored The Wrong Complexion for Protection: How the Government Response to Disaster Endangers African Americans (NYU Press, 2012).

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