reflections by Carl C. Anthony
I spent the early years of my childhood in a Philadelphia neighborhood called the “Black Bottom,” or simply the “Bottom” – a predominantly poor and black neighborhood built on a drained swamp. In blatant contrast, the neighborhood where the white people lived was called the “Top.” Many years later, I learned from a prominent professor of landscape architecture and urban planning that in Philadelphia and in many other cities across the country, the poorest people – primarily blacks and immigrants – had no choice but to live in undesirable low-lying locations. Such disparity continues to exist. It is an example of what we call “environmental racism.”
People of color were tolerated as marginalized populations in cities as long as they remained in ghettos. The implied message is that if they want to live in “white ” cities, they should get used to the idea that the American mainstream is white – by definition, inheritance, and privilege. Racist housing policies fashioned by government on the local and national levels led to gaps in opportunity, cultural amenities, and educational achievement. Financial institutions, real estate developers, community groups, and civic organizations reinforced the ghettoization of people of color. Now that metropolitan centers are being gentrified, marginalized populations have moved to older suburbs, where they have even fewer advantages than they had in the inner city.
When violent, race-related civil insurrections swept through US cities in 1964-67, President Lyndon Johnson appointed a commission to investigate the cause. The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, commonly called the Kerner Commission, concluded that the nation was moving toward “two Americas” – one black and one white, separate and unequal. The white part was suburban and thriving while the black part, in the inner city, was in decline. Unless conditions were remedied, the commission warned, the country faced a system of apartheid in its major cities.
To pursue our present course will involve the continuing polarization of the American community and, ultimately, the destruction of basic democratic values. The alternative is . . . the realization of common opportunities for all within a single society. . . . What white Americans have never fully understood but what the Negro can never forget – is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it. (Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders 1968, p.1)
The report identified unjust policies that isolated African Americans and prevented their educational and economic advancement. It called for legislation and policy reforms to promote racial integration and enrich the ghetto – making resources available for jobs, job training, improved public schools, and decent housing.
We believe that the only possible choice for America is . . . a policy which combines ghetto enrichment with programs designed to encourage integration of substantial numbers of Negroes into the society outside the ghetto. . . . The primary goal must be a single society, in which every citizen will be free to live and work according to his capabilities and desires, not his color. (Ibid., p. 19-20)
Unfortunately, none of the Kerner Commission’s recommendations were implemented – neither on the national nor the local level. Not surprisingly, when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April of 1968, insurrections broke out again in many cities. The Kerner Commission’s diagnosis of corrosive inequities and its warning of worsening conditions in the inner cities and increasing racial conflict has continued to be played out, now more often in older declining suburbs like Ferguson, Missouri.
Recent rainfall of 50+ inches in and around Houston, Texas, in the wake of Hurricane Harvey flooded nearly a third of Harris County, according to a meteorologist with the county flood control district. Environmental justice warrior Robert Bullard, who teaches at Texas State University and resides in Houston, made the following observation in a September 7 interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now:
Historically, it’s been low-income communities and communities of color that live in low-lying areas that are very prone to flooding. And it’s very difficult to get insurance, not just flood insurance, but regular insurance, because of redlining. So, what Harvey has done is to expose those inequalities that existed before the storm. . . . What we have to do is guard against building and rebuilding on that inequity. . . . when the money comes down to Houston – and the money will come down – we have to make sure that it flows in a way that does not perpetuate or exacerbate or continue the inequality that existed before the storm.
Unfortunately, property damage from flooding is not the only problem. The release of toxic materials into air and water is a lethal side effect of excessive wind and water. Not surprisingly petrochemical processing plants have been sited adjacent to neighborhoods occupied primarily by people of color.
Although many people continue to insist that the more frequent, longer, and stronger storms we experience are NOT the result of climate change, the Union of Concerned Scientists and others share an important scientific fact: Warmer air can hold larger amounts of water vapor, which leads to more intense rainfall and flooding.
The recent series of record-breaking storms and the weak US response to the devastation bring into sharp relief the reality of unequal protection from environmental disasters. This is particularly poignant in the case of the US territory of Puerto Rico when Hurricane Maria destroyed its basic infrastructure.
In my book, The Earth, the City, and the Hidden Narrative of Race I share the story of humanity’s common origin in the birth of the universe, a new story that gave me a much-needed sense of dignity and belonging when I encountered it in the late 1980s in the work of Thomas Berry, Brian Swimme, and Mary Evelyn Tucker. Berry called on us to unite and work together to accomplish the Great Work of our time – reversing the damage to people and environment caused by centuries of ignorance and greed.
The new story continues as our earliest ancestors appear on the African continent and spread out to people planet Earth. A major theme in the hidden narrative of race, which I aim to bring to light, is the massive contributions by African Americans and other people of color to building the modern world.
Traditionally people of color have demonstrated tremendous resilience in the face of hardships, most of which were manmade. Acts of determination and courage have been characteristic of the indigenous occupants of this land, the enslaved kidnapped from Africa, those born into slavery, waves of migrants from Europe and Asia, and recent illegal immigrants. Listening to one another’s stories with open hearts, especially those of the most marginalized among us, is essential for empowering grassroots leadership and building a sense of our common humanity and shared planetary future.
Rebuilding after natural disasters provides opportunities to mobilize public resources to serve the needs of people rather than speculators. We can begin to rectify past mistakes by changing the way we think about cities and how we plan, design, construct, and live in them. We must create a new generation of policies that support human and ecological needs, recognizing that both human diversity and biodiversity are essential to planetary health.
We need to be concerned not only with the siting of hazardous waste but also with the siting of everything – schools, grocery stores, parks, prisons, universities, and freeways. The siting of toxic facilities is a symptom of a much bigger problem that symbolizes a community’s lack of capacity to shape the environment in ways that sustain it and are ecologically sound. People and their representaties in government must prioritize ecological flood control strategies such as protection and restoration of wetlands. They must demand that homes, buildings, and infrastructure be reconstructed to higher standards that will better withstand damage from winds and flooding.
It makes sense for the nation to invest in social equity and in practices that strengthen the viability of the natural world. We need to find ways to make smart growth and green building benefit the most marginalized and vulnerable populations. This is a good time to dust off the Kerner Commission report, discuss its message, and implement its recommendations. Our work at Breakthrough Communities focuses on empowering grassroots community groups to champion new policies that address the legacy of racism and protect the rights of the most vulnerable among us. I definitely see signs of hope. I was delighted to learn that the illustration on the front cover of my book – a photomontage by popular artist, community activist, and entrepreneur Keba Armond Konte – is titled “Bottoms Up.” The photo was taken at a community celebration during the painting of a mural in the Bottoms neighborhood of West Oakland. The book and an accompanying Learning Action Guide are intended to inspire and empower grassroots community groups to organize and act for environmental restoration and social justice.