Our national conversation on Hurricane Harvey should be much like those about Charlottesville, Va., or Flint, Mich. But as the Houston area braces for much more flooding, that won’t happen until receding floodwaters reveal the dangerously gaping holes of disparity between white haves and black have-nots.
Right now the nation just sees flooding and burly, boat-owning white dudes saving people from immediate disaster. There’s no talk of what is happening to Houston’s vast population of disproportionately low-income black and brown residents. And public officials, like Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott—each playing public hot potato over who will, ultimately, bear responsibility for a lackluster response—don’t seem to care about that part, either. And forget about any shred of empathy from President Donald Trump.
Yet the socioeconomic aspect of Harvey is the biggest part of the story. We’re already seeing those random television reports of frustrated black women stuck in flooded apartment buildings, getting busy signals for 911 and helplessly watching helicopters fly overhead. That’s already getting worse because several hundred thousand Houston-area residents didn’t have the luxury of packing up and leaving, despite Abbott’s calls to do so.
Houston was already in over its head with poverty numbers as high as the next round of flooding: Nearly 30 percent of Houston residents struggle with income below the poverty level, along with 17 percent of Harris County residents. And nearly 26 percent of black residents in Houston are living below the poverty level, surpassed by 27 percent of Latinx residents.
In a more glaring data point, 45 percent of households earning $10,000 or less in income are black, while 80 percent of households earning $200,000 or more are white. So if your neighborhood is flooded out, where the hell do you go?
Creeping deep below the fast-rising floodwaters of Harvey are the countless thousands who have no home insurance, no assets to tap into for recovery, no savings (if any) to access for a sudden move and no transportation options when cars get flooded (if they have those). And since federal disaster response—including an underfunded National Flood Insurance Program—is geared toward homeowners, those who either rent or who are stuck in public housing find even fewer options. As was the case post-Katrina, black families end up receiving fewer dollars on average for home recovery because they live in undervalued neighborhoods.
Race, racism and class will dramatically gut-punch an unprepared national discourse on the topic of climate change. And with 30,000 people about to get crowded into stuffy emergency shelters, watch how long the typically short-fused racial patience lasts. Not only does Harvey represent the permanency of climate change, but it also exposes those who are fast becoming the permanent victims of it: underserved populations “of color” in densely populated urban cores.
When hurricanes hit, they affect over a quarter of the nation’s black population, which is concentrated in the most exposed Southern states (pdf) (like Texas). Increasing sea level rise is also threatening mostly poorer, perpetually less-resourced black neighborhoods. During a 2016 Congress for the New Urbanism presentation in Detroit on how cities were re-engineering in the face of climate-change-instigated flooding, the all-white panel kept calling it “nuisance flooding” and didn’t give a thought to what would happen to coastal black communities that didn’t have any kind of loot allowing them to adapt.
Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was the most illustrative example of every disparity converging on an unprotected, unprepared black community all at once (patternwise, Harvey is shaping up as the next). Everything intersected during Katrina: climate change, natural disaster, bad government response, rudderless leadership, institutional racism, classism and the massive displacement of black populations that ended up creating an unintended diaspora scattered mostly throughout the Southwest United States. But Katrina wasn’t the first time, really, and it won’t be the last. The “unprecedented” nature of Harvey indicates that more severe storms will come as climate change patterns intensify. And that leaves much of the national black community in the worst spot.
Clearly, state, local and federal government preparations and post-event response aren’t adequately addressing the needs of vulnerable, underserved black and brown populations—nor is the government exhibiting a desire to do so. But black state, local and federal elected officials, along with community advocates and black media, must be much more proactive and preparatory.
Our conversations around climate change need more urgency and greater awareness, and yet this is not happening. For example, climate change threats aren’t big topics when influential African Americans converge for conferences: When the National Association of Black Journalists convened in New Orleans this summer, climate change didn’t even make the agenda.
“We were surprised to find that wasn’t being discussed,” said Myron Jackson, Senate president of the Legislature of the U.S. Virgin Islands, a majority-black territory that has long dealt with devastating hurricanes and is bracing for more as destructive weather patterns intensify. While at a Council of State Governments discussion in Connecticut (where this writer was a panelist), Jackson shared thoughts on the lack of internal community conversation after attending NABJ. “It was rather disappointing,” he added.
Nor was climate change a prominent feature at other major black organizational conventions this summer, and few expect that it will be. The black church is just as bad. Houston’s Mayor Turner is one glaring example of how black elected officials won’t intersect climate change with aligned issues such as poverty. If he had, his response planning would have been a lot more holistic.
“New Orleans literally rebuilt their school system after Katrina,” says former Obama-administration appointee and Colorado state legislator Peter Groff. “Houston has the opportunity to remake previous poor areas, but black elected [officials] need to be on guard for gentrification.”
Climate change demands this kind of discussion and planning. Equally tragic is that black communities themselves fail to robustly engage in an intersectional and action-steps dialogue on climate change in the context of broader and rather familiar socioeconomic themes. It can’t be that certain segments of the black advocacy community already focused on climate justice are the only ones leading this discussion—all of us need to lead it.
“It’s difficult because there’s a finite amount of social justice capital to go around,” said KFI AM (Los Angeles) broadcaster and commentator Mo Kelly on WURD Radio’s (Philadelphia) Reality Check. “This issue is not in our face like other issues, since it’s a slow-moving glacier.” Still, we can’t afford to wait on a headline or folks screaming for help on social media before we get working on this issue. Before the next big calamity strikes, let’s make certain we own it.