Racial discrimination in Gulf reconstruction

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(NNPA)—The big story about the NAACP convention meeting in Kansas City was whether President Obama would come or not. But I think that Ben Jealous hit the right nerve in his opening speech to the convention when he delivered a report that the organization had put together from a series of meetings in affected communities in the Gulf area where the oil spill occurred.

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The report found that minorities have been locked out of contracts for cleanup and other kinds of work and are routinely given the lowest-paying jobs; people are at risk of losing their houses and businesses because work has dried up; many of these communities were hit by Katrina and Rita and have not recovered; fumes and pollution are a serious problem and workers are often not given the correct protective clothing. Lisa Jackson, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, also spoke at the convention and backed up the findings in the report and vowed to work with communities to produce clean water, clean land.

 

However, it seems to me that a civil rights operation needs to move into the oil cleanup operation to bring about a strong element of fairness to that situation. When Katrina hit, we heard that the companies involved in the cleanup were importing workers from Korea, Mexico and Vietnam at the lowest wages to work the reconstruction. Many of them are still there and they provide competition with many workers who actually live in the area and have been deprived not just of a job, but of their entire livelihood if things don’t improve. They have the most stake in the outcome of the reconstruction.

I was listening to National Public Radio the other day and John Boyd, president of the National Association of Black Farmers, was being interviewed. It seems that many of his members are farmers whose land has been desecrated by the oil spill and fishermen whose livelihoods were made on the water. But their complaint is that BP has bypassed them in looking for other farmers and fishermen whose land and waters have been polluted.

This is important because Black farmers and fishermen have a claim to the same kind of financial reparations that are being made available to Whites in the area and they want and deserve a big piece of the cleanup work that is going on. However, Boyd says that Black fishermen seeking jobs with the cleanup crew have been brushed off.

Again Lisa Jackson’s agency seems to be the only one that has an SBA participation program with respect to soil and water, chemistry, waste disposal but Black-owned public relations firms like Bright Moments in New Orleans are awaiting proposals to community outreach messaging, but none have come from BP. Apparently, they believe that national adds showing an Africa-American male who lives in the area and is “in charge” of claims will suffice to show that they are sensitive to the problem. This, together with what appears to be a national media blackout of this problem hides a monumental race issue with respect to the oil spill.

Ken Feinberg has been placed in charge of processing the claims associated with the oil spill, since the president has wrested $20 billion from BP. But Feinberg was recently on CNN discussing the claims process but said nothing about the safeguards placed on the money that would allow it to be distributed fairly, not just to selected individuals but to communities as well.

The Nation Congress of American Indians has called for a meeting in New Orleans to discuss why the Native American community in the Gulf has been overlooked with respect their access to resources in the cleanup.

The Black community’s interest is not just vested in workers. One Black fisherman stands to lose more than $100,000 from his shrimp business, but he can’t get remediation contracts for the destruction of their fishing grounds.

What’s happening here is old style racism and kudos to the NAACP, but the Justice Department needs to get involved and not just leave the EPA down there to fend off Blacks seeking distributive justice for the damage to their lives. This is another racial issue for the administration and it will be interesting to see how they handle it.

(Ron Walters is a political analyst and professor emeritus at the University of Maryland College Park.)

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