The new report “Beyond Recovery: Moving the Gulf Coast to a Sustainable Future,” published by the Center for American Progress and Oxfam America, highlights the extensive dominance of two key Gulf Coast industries—drilling and fishing—in Alabama, Louisiana. and Mississippi, and what that means for the coastal communities in these three states. The report demonstrates the need for forward-looking, citizen-driven solutions especially for the region’s communities of color.
Demographically, the Gulf Coast and its industrial workforces are considerably diverse. African Americans constitute roughly 30 percent of the people in each state and are represented broadly in the oil-and-gas and fishing workforce along the coast. Latinos and Asians comprise about 4 percent and 1 percent, respectively, of each state’s population, and are strongly represented in the offshore drilling, seafood, and tourism industries. Native American groups in the region average only 0.7 percent of the overall population, but these communities are also heavily engaged in the high-grossing tourism industry and aquacultural industries that define the region.
Although workers and residents of color have shaped the Gulf Coast economy, dramatically high levels of segregation and economic disparity persist. As is the case across the country, many Native Americans in the Southeast remain chronically underemployed even in the midst of large-scale industries. A history of low wages for dangerous but valuable work continues to plague black communities in the region and has also become a sty for Latino and Asian workers—American-born and immigrant alike—who are searching for livable wages in a region of subsistence.
Many of these same communities also reside within areas hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina, and work in the industries harmed grievously by last year’s oil disaster. From the displacement of African Americans by Katrina to Latino workers sick from the toxic oil spill cleanup and Vietnamese American fisherman and shrimpers who hold 30 percent to 50 percent of seafood-related industry jobs in the Gulf worrying about their day-to-day income source, it is clear that these two disasters, have left their imprint on Gulf communities. And in recent years, Native American Bayou-based tribes also suffered because their primary food, water, and economic sources are compromised as a result of the BP oil disaster.
The health and security of these communities, made most vulnerable to disasters as a result of their proximity and economic dependency on under-regulated industries, are the most telling metric by which to judge the current economic weakness of the region. But there are solutions, and communities of color are a critical part of mutually shaping and advancing them for the good of the region.
“Beyond Recovery” indicates that investing in wetlands and coastal restoration would create nearly six times as many jobs as investments in oil and gas. It also argues that the region is economically underdeveloped as a result of its dependence on extractive industries and would fare far better if natural resources were developed, not depleted.
By supporting strong renewable energy development in areas where the region holds substantial potential, such as hydropower, biodiesel, solar, and wind energy, uplift could move communities of color economically forward. This clean energy tide would work from the “bottom up” to create innovative opportunities for the region, leading to healthy job growth in new and existing sectors—all of them significantly occupied by employees of color.
Further encouraging this clean tide to crest would be increased access to workforce programs for sector-specific employment alongside English-as-a-second-language programs. These programs can help communities otherwise beleaguered by industrial catastrophe and socioeconomic marginalization, and could more easily transition their existing skills into more economically and ecologically sustainable employment in an improved Gulf economy.
In addition, encouraging industrial best practices through “Race to the Top”-like competition would benefit communities of color through access to better paying jobs, lower susceptibility to workplace-based health impediments, and an overall improvement to the plausible economic gains in the Gulf region.
Asian, Latino, black, and Native American stakeholders indeed have much to gain from energy conscious plans for regional economic growth. But that transition will not be easy and must be informed by the most the residents of the region. Robust civic participation must be developed in ways that meaningfully take the concerns, insights, and expertise of local residents of color into consideration. Officials should support formal, inclusive stakeholder engagement in crafting a regional plan that touts economic growth through technological modernization, ecological sustainability, and direct community investment
With community collaboration and an eye toward long-term, sustainable growth, Gulf Coast communities of color will both benefit and thrive from policies to restore and transition the region to an equitable future.
Folayemi Agbede is the Special Assistant for Progress 2050. Progress 2050 is committed to advancing progressive policies for an increasingly diverse America.
- Beyond Recovery by Kate Gordon, Jeffrey Buchanan, Phillip Singerman, Jorge Madrid, and Sarah Busch