Environmental racism remains a major issue of concern in the United States. Many feel that little is being done by the government and the country at large to eliminate environmental racism. According to (Sanchez & Brenman, 2008), environmental racism is the segregation of minority groups’ example the Blacks, Hispanics and low income earners to environments or locations that are degraded. These groups are exposed to pollution, toxic wastes, contaminations which are hazardous to their health. Environmental racism in the metropolitan city of New Orleans was brought to light by the hurricane Katrina. People who contribute the least to climate change and environmental pollution suffer the greatest due to the adverse effects of climate change such as phenomena like hurricanes and also the devastating effects of brought by these phenomena.
New Orleans is a metropolitan city located in Southeast of Louisiana State between the Mississippi river and Lake Ponchartrain. According to the 2010 United States census New Orleans has a population of 343,829 comprising of 60 percent Black, 33 percent white, 5 percent Hispanic and 2 percent of other races (Dreier, 2006). The city has a size of 181 square meters. The first residents of were Native Americans of the Woodland and Mississippian decent, it later become Spain and France territory before becoming part of the United States through the Louisiana Purchase. Additionally, New Orleans is home to one of the greatest international port which is the city main economic driver.
According to (Rothman, 2006), ghettoization is the restricting of people to a particular location, activity or category. In New Orleans ghettoization stated long before hurricane Katrina. This was contributed to discriminative patterns of settlement undertaken in the city. Before the civil war white and blacks lived in residential areas that had close proximity to each other but after the end of the war White people forced Black people to move in residents that were undesirable. These places were characterized by noise and air pollution hence the African American people were subject to unhealthy air levels and high noise levels (Rothman, 2006). They also faced frequent flooding, lack of clean drinking water and they also faced bad sewage conditions.
African Americans were excluded from suburbs by the Whites by the use of deed covenants. They were segregated and forced live in public houses where living conditions were very poor. African Americans were also forced to settle in areas occupied by industries due to racial segregation and their low standards of living. The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) mortgage program excluded all black neighborhoods denying them mortgages despite their financial qualifications. This denied many blacks opportunity to own houses and led to development of black neighborhoods. According to (Mills, 2006) over the years minority groups have been subjected to undesirable areas such as swamp lands, areas next to railways, industries and low lying areas.
Environmental racism in New Orleans exposed the city to certain risk capes and despite the efforts of the environmental justice movement to eliminate environmental racism through equal resource allocation hurricane Katrina encountered New Orleans still struggling with social and economic disparities (Rothman, 2006). Hurricane Katrina did not racially or economically discriminate but its impact was heavily felt by racial minorities and the poor in New Orleans. White’s residential areas were in the higher grounds in the suburbs whereas black residential areas are concentrated in the lower grounds in the suburbs.
New Orleans before the hurricane Katrina lacked comprehensive policies for flood damage control this was mainly attributed to racial disparity. According to (Dreier, 2006), the White neighborhoods had high elevations and low exposure to flooding, dump sites and industrial sites. Public transport and urban infrastructure was also easily accessible. Additionally, these areas were developed to eliminate unwanted swamp conditions and preserved mainly to Whites. Due to this racial disparity the city did not see any need to develop elaborate flood damage, as it did not affect the Whites.
New Orleans agencies did little to prepare for a hurricane of Katrina’s magnitude. New Orleans agencies permitted expansion of the city into the lower grounds that were occupied by racially and economically segregated minority groups despite the threats of frequent hurricanes faced by New Orleans in the past years (Kurtz, 2007). Homes were built 3 meters below sea level this placed many people of minority groups life’s at risk. The City agencies also neglected development of public infrastructure and public transit systems mainly in neighborhood resident by those segregated racially and economically. New Orleans agencies did not build strong levee to hold floods as the city is located in mainly in areas below sea level. Levees and canals had only been built in the White neighborhoods. The neighborhoods of African Americans did not enjoy these privileges.
Due to the City of New Orleans agencies failure to identify and mitigate all the risks capes hurricane Katrina had very severe effects on New Orleans specifically to the poor and racially segregated. According to (Rothman, 2006) eighty percent of the city of New Orleans was covered by floods up to the depths of 10 feet or more. The city and rural communities were all destroyed due to the magnitude of the storm. The most affected by hurricane Katrina were poor black communities whose residential buildings were concentrated on lower grounds that experienced more devastating effects of Katrina as they were more vulnerable compared to Whites who lived in elevated areas.
Blacks made 65 percent of the total flood victims whereas Whites made 31 percent (Rothman, 2006). This is mainly as a result of lack of access to cars and public transport by the Blacks to free from the advancing storm. A week after hurricane Katrina African American people and their residences that were still flooded were a greater percentage compared to those of Whites. Whites made 20 percent of those still living in flooded areas while blacks made 76 percent of those living in flooded areas after ten days.
Hurricane Katrina also resulted to chemical contamination and spills. This was mainly due to the large number of hazardous materials sites located in New Orleans. However, studies after Katrina showed that New Orleans lead levels were still the same before and after the hurricane. The lead levels affected people mainly from the African America communities due to their proximity to the industries. According to (Kurtz, 2007), 20 to 30 percent of inner city children suffered lead contamination. They had excess lead in their blood system as per the guidelines of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Black neighborhoods also reported high levels of air pollution this because the quality of air was a great health concern after hurricane Katrina.
New Orleans is composed of suburbs whose residency is determined mainly by the race and economic qualifications. Whites were the first to move to urban areas followed by middle class blacks and then lower middle class blacks who were attracted by the city’s affordable housing. The French quarters, garden district, University, Uptown and Carrollton neighborhoods in New Orleans are mainly occupied by White people. 9th Ward is composed of mainly poor African American and the East area of New Orleans which mostly houses educated African American and business owners (Rothman, 2006). The areas occupied by African Americans were washed away and also the University of New Orleans and Lakeview areas which were predominately occupied by rich White people this was mainly because canals built did not hold.
Whites in New Orleans considered themselves a better race than the other races. This was also accelerated by federal housing programs, practices by private companies mainly banks and private developers, tax reforms and transport policies that enhance racial and economic segregation. According to (Mills, 2006), states spend less funds on public transport and public transit systems in favor of highways and personal vehicles. This displaces minority and poor communities to make more room for highways that aid white movement from urban to suburban areas. Additionally, this weakens inner cities and results to more pollution of air.
Whites segregated Blacks to areas that were undesirable. These areas were prone to floods, chemical contamination due to industries located in these areas, low air quality due to air pollution and location of dumps. The city railroads were also built in these areas. Additionally these areas had unpaved roads and poor access to public transport. The leadership also did less to develop these areas as they were considered areas of high voter turnover. White exceptionalism made them have the perception they were exceptional compared to other races and deserved the better than them. These contributed to the African American facing devastating effects due to the racial and economic segregation they faced.
Hurricane Katrina demonstrated the lack of adequate preparation for environmental disasters. Until better disaster preparedness policies are developed New Orleans remains vulnerable. However, the most vulnerable are the minority groups who have been racially and economically discriminated over the years. Environmental disasters such as hurricane Katrina are a result of climatic change. Climate change is brought by human activities that emit greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. These human activities are mainly perpetrated by the privileged communities as compared to the minority communicates, whereas the effects of climatic changes such as hurricane Katrina are more devastating on the environmentally discriminated.
Hurricane Katrina brought to light the continuing environmental racism in New Orleans. Environmental discrimination is also an issue of concern in other metropolitan cities. Environmental racism should be addressed in order to avoid future catastrophic disasters. This calls for implementation of environmental justice. The government should construct affordable housing for low income earners in areas that are safe and promote healthy living conditions. The government should also ensure equity in construction of disaster control structures such levees in New Orleans across all races residential areas. Political leaders should also strive to make policies that promote equity and address the needs of the minority populations.
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