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November 2005
Going Home
The Satya Interview with Dr. Beverly Wright


New Orleans. Photo by Tim Gorski

A leading scholar on and advocate for environmental justice, Dr. Beverly Wright has been working on behalf of communities in Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley” for years. As head of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Dillard University, Dr. Wright has been tackling issues of gentrification and environmental racism.

For Wright, a New Orleans resident, the impact of Katrina is harsh both personally and politically. The floodwaters wiped out her home and displaced her entire community, but she is most concerned with the erosion of the African American political base in her city. She has been relentless in organizing to give voice to concerns of her fellow residents and to ensure the right to a safe and healthy return.

Beverly Wright was able to spare a few minutes to share with Sangamithra Iyerher concerns about the future of her hometown.

As Director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, you have been working on issues of environmental injustice in the South for years. You have said that the post-Katrina conditions are intrinsically linked with pre-Katrina conditions. Can you talk about the pre-Katrina political environment in New Orleans?
Well, pre-Katrina, we were fighting things like lifting the residency requirement [for police promotions] because the police force for the first time was reaching parity by race. We were very close to having equal numbers of African Americans and whites on the force, at least in the lower ranks in a city that was almost 70 percent black. The upper ranks were still predominantly white but African American police officers were being promoted to major and captain probably for the first time.

We had a majority black school board, but the state was attempting to take over the school system. Orleans parish was not the only parish with a failing school system, but it was the only one run by African Americans and the only one they were attempting to take over. So we were feeling attacked in all kinds of ways that we thought had everything to do with political and economic power.

We were also dealing with gentrification disguised as Hope VI [the national plan to replace severely distressed public housing]. We saw very little mixed-use or low-income housing and watched 7,000 people be displaced by a Wal-Mart in the uptown area—7,000 individuals that basically controlled a council seat and greatly influenced a congressional district seat and state legislature seat. By wiping out 7,000 African Americans, the demographics and political positioning of these groups changed overnight.

But we were well organized and had a group of African American professionals, business people, grassroots community leaders, and environmental leaders coming together, including the NAACP and the Urban League, to deal with the enormous number of problems we had in our city. We were pushing for an increase of the livable wage because New Orleans has such a large working poor population. And that’s the point people miss. They were not just welfare recipients. These people worked in hotels and restaurants for wages they could get sitting at home doing nothing. We have large numbers of hotels and restaurants with profit margins greater in New Orleans than in comparable cities and that has everything to do with the low wage scale.

Our former mayor Mark Morial tried extremely hard to get a commuter tax on persons working in the city, but living outside the city and he was treated as if he were the devil himself. [Meanwhile], the persons making the money and draining the city dry of its finances were living on the outskirts, and basically just not wanting anything to do with the city’s problems.

And what is the climate like post-Katrina?
The [environmental] conditions in terms of the Mississippi River chemical corridor, the superfund sites, and the levees not being shored up, all existed before Katrina and now have just been exacerbated.

Our African American political base is eroding with the total destruction of two prominent African American communities—the lower 9th Ward, made up of the working poor, homeowners and voters, and New Orleans East, which had middle, upper middle and even wealthy African Americans. Katrina has completely changed the demographics of the city. Some people are saying that the city is now about 35 percent African American and others say it’s more like 45 percent. We’ve gone from a 67 percent majority to a minority. And when the people who can return, do return, the majority will be white and Republican.

The [businesses and developers]—people who have a different vision for the city that does not include black and poor people—are trying very hard to have a say about the rebuilding and redesigning of the city, which would exclude most of us. We have a serious battle going on. But the battle is no different from what was here before, it’s just that they have eliminated large numbers of people, which would make them winning a lot easier.

What are some of your biggest concerns with respect to the environment and public health in the returning and rebuilding process?
My concerns have more to do with the unknown. We are getting so little information, most of us don’t know to what extent our environments have been contaminated.

My concern is that the amount of toxins present may be used as a reason not to rebuild and they will not allow the repopulation of certain sections of the city that have historically been African American. I’m concerned about the change of the demographics of our city.

I’m also worried that if a cleanup is done, it won’t meet the proper standards, and ten years from now we end up with African Americans living on top of superfund sites.

I’m also concerned that there is not enough health monitoring of people. Hardly any information is coming out from the EPA, and rumors are prevailing. Some people are saying that they are never going back because it is too toxic, but we don’t know that.

Presently, we are doing independent soil testing and air monitoring through the NRDC. We plan to collect our own data to compare with the EPA’s data, to make certain we are getting the real results. And not only that, we might have the same results, but the interpretation could be different depending upon what the underlying motives are for presenting results.

So this is a very serious situation with political, economic, as well as health ramifications.

What role do local community groups have with respect to environmental decisions and policies in the hazardous waste cleanup? Is there dialogue between local groups and government and regulatory agencies on these decisions?
From what I can tell they are having very little dialogue. There is a lot of talk about plans to promote dialogue, but from my vantage point it seems that dialogue is going on among professionals, the feds, and city people without including communities who have everything at stake.

There’s lots of talk about huge [construction projects], and bringing in people, but the people making these decisions don’t look like us—the people on the ground, the people who lost everything. And that’s why I’m worried. I’m not sure it will be in the best interest of those who lived in the city and in the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

One of the objectives of my center is to promote and convene meetings so we can force some debate that would include the concerns of people on the ground—people from New Orleans. Our center has been convening briefings for the congressional legislative black caucus and the city council. We have had legal agencies come talk to our representatives and us about the legal concerns around voting and the right to return. Should elections be postponed? How will people who no longer live in the city be able to vote? Will absentee voting be allowed? NRDC will be taking a lead in briefing our legislative black caucus and city council persons [about environmental concerns].

We are trying to convene meetings in all of the places where large numbers of evacuees are—Atlanta, Jackson, Houston, Dallas and San Antonio—so that representatives, legal entities and environmental groups can discuss with [evacuees] their future and their role in rebuilding. We are hoping to have some of these meetings in November around the Bayou Classic, which is a big event for African Americans.

Can you comment on some of the federal bills and policies being developed regarding the reconstruction? It seems the priority is not in the interest of the people or the environment, but rather the interests of oil refineries and other corporations.
I testified on the Hill before the energy and commerce commission specifically to those points. In our haste to clean up and move people back, we should take pause and make certain that what we are doing is in the best interest of the people. It’s not just about moving back, it’s about moving back to a safe and healthy environment. We neglected the levees and now we are paying the ultimate price of $250 billion. If we move back in haste, we may pay later with health problems, increased cancer and all the other things we’ve seen around superfund sites.

I really believe some people are using Katrina to do a lot of things they wanted to do before, and move a different kind of agenda. The federal government should not be loosening environmental regulations and standards, but strengthening them under these kinds of circumstances. They are going in the opposite direction of what will eventually move us back home safely for the long-term.

They’ve come up with all kinds of things—the environmental waivers, the refinery “rejuvenation” bill. It’s not surprising to me, to be honest. It’s just difficult for us to fight some of this stuff, because it’s been put on a fast track.

But this is in the same vein of what we’ve got from this administration. Nothing is different—big no-bid contracts to friends of the White House. They seem to be shameless. They don’t apologize for it; they just do it right in your face. I’ve never seen anything like this before in my life, and they get away with it over and over again. We need a regime change in this country as well.

Can you talk about some of your personal experiences in Katrina’s aftermath and some of the struggles that might be representative of other people there as well?
First of all, there is an emotional side of losing everything, losing your community, and then not knowing when you can go back home. It’s not so much losing a house, it’s losing, for example, pictures of my mom, who passed away in April. I had a whole chronology of her life from when she was a little girl all the way till when she was 79. The whole memory is just wiped out. My brother also passed away seven months before she did and all his pictures are gone too. So that is devastating.

The loss of my church. Now at a time when you feel you really need to pray, you don’t even have your church, or your minister, or your priest. Even those people are displaced.

I have children in college and out of college. But for all of my friends’ children in school, it has been so emotional to readjust to a new school. The kids who were seniors lost their senior year. The children are depressed. We are depressed.

And then the housing problem has just been tremendous, living from sofa to bed at different friends’ houses. This is all just indescribable. And then we have to deal with the discrimination problem. You see middle class black people being charged more to rent a space because they don’t want ‘hooligans’ in their hotel. Apartment complexes were not renting to African Americans, but holding out for whites. And the price gouging for housing—charging $50-60,000 more than the house is worth—because they know people were desperate for housing.

You know one of the reasons New Orleans was 67 percent black was because black people were comfortable there. At some point you just get tired of fighting discrimination, so you find a place where your children can go to a decent school, and you don’t have to worry about being called names or being treated unfairly. New Orleans was that kind of place. Where your children could see African Americans being the mayor, running the school board, and their vision for their future was much broader than what they would get in other places. For that reason, New Orleans was a great place for African Americans, even poor African Americans, which was why they were still there. They could have gone to other places, but there was something about that city that was so wonderful and lively—the culture, the music. African Americans have been there a very long time and there are certain traditions that went on in our city that have been washed away. It’s very sad.

What people don’t recognize—I recognized this when we were standing in the food stamp line—is that Katrina was a big equalizer. You had single mothers who had been living in subsidized housing, physicians, and ministers all in the Red Cross line trying to get food stamps because we had no money. The banks were under water. So if you had money, you couldn’t get to it. And if you had money in the bank for that month, your job was gone, so you wouldn’t have any the next month.

We have such an unsure future. We have thousands and thousands of people, from every occupation, who no longer have a livelihood who now have to take handouts. When I got the food stamp card, I didn’t know what EBT stood for. There are all kinds of things we are just finding out, and it is a humbling experience. Those of us who have nothing are appreciative, but you recognize that you are in a completely different position than where you have ever been in your whole life.



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