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
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
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
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
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