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Black History Month: Wrong Complexion for Protection When Disasters Strike

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There's an old saying that "all communities are not created equal."   This was true some 236 years ago when our nation was founded and it is true today as we celebrate Black History Month.  Much has been written about the glaring racial inequality in employment, education, income and wealth, housing and health care.  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 Gulf Coast, millions of African Americans in the South 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), my colleague Beverly Wright and I document unequal government response to conditions in Black New Orleans before and after the 2005 flood--and the special vulnerability caused by decades of institutional racism. 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. Questions linger: What went wrong? Can it happen again? Is our government equipped to plan for, mitigate, respond to, and recover from natural and man-made disasters? Can the public trust government response to be fair? Does race matter?

Racial disparities exist in disaster response, cleanup, rebuilding, reconstruction, and recovery. Race plays out in natural disaster survivors' ability to rebuild, replace infrastructure, obtain loans and insurance, and locate temporary and permanent housing. Generally, low-income and African American disaster victims spend more time in temporary housing, shelters, trailers, mobile homes, and hotels, and are more vulnerable to permanent displacement. Some "temporary" homes have not proved to be that temporary. In exploring the geography of vulnerability, we asked why some communities get left behind economically, spatially, and physically before and after disasters strike. The answer lies in the fact that we have yet to become a "post-racial" nation.

As a follow up to the Katrina book, we expanded our analysis in Wrong Complexion for Protection: How the Government Response to Disaster Endangers African Americans, a forthcoming book from NYU Press (expected publication in July 2012), 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.

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 and unequal 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.

While natural disasters do not discriminate based on race or class, some government actions or lack of action have placed African Americans at elevated environmental health threats.   The fact that the people who are most neglected by the government's failure to respond expeditiously and competently are African Americans and poor, place questions of race, institutional racism and class at the center of this analysis. Therefore, it is extremely important that disaster-response events over the past eight decades be placed within a social and historical context. This is more than an academic exercise since uncovering and eliminating disparate response and treatment can mean the difference between life and death for those most vulnerable in natural and man-made disasters.

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. We believe 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.

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.

As the nation moves to strengthen our ability to prepare for and respond to potential bioterrorism threats, we also cannot forget or ignore real health and environmental pollution threats posed by chemical plants and railway accidents and explosions that  endanger fence line communities.  Too many residents in fenceline communities are still in the dark when it comes to emergency evacuation plans. This problem is compounded by the high proportion of low-income residents who do not own cars.  Disaster evacuation plans are largely built around private car ownership which translates into many carless residents being stranded on the side of the road or on rooftops.  Making disaster response equitable is a matter of civil and human rights.    

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Robert D. Bullard is Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy in the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University in Houston. His most recent book is entitled "The Wrong Complexion (more...)

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