My essay, “The Louisiana Chemical Plants Thriving Off of Slavery,” looks at the links between the plantation economy and the petrochemical industry in south Louisiana, arguing that “it’s not by chance that 158 years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, rural Black communities bear the environmental consequences of Louisiana’s biggest industry.” I’m delighted that it’s included in The Atlantic’s Inheritance Series, a project about Black life, American History, and the Resilience of Memory. I encourage you to read the whole series.
Politics in Louisiana often revolves around industry. “St. James Parish, on its face, is hunky-dory: fifty-fifty Black and white,” Anne Rolfes, the founder and director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, a nonprofit that partners with fence-line communities to advocate for environmental rights, said during the aforementioned bike tour. “However, the African American population is mostly at one end of the parish, in the Fourth and Fifth Districts. And where do you think the land-use plans put all the petrochemical plants?” Lavigne lives in the Fifth District, where nine plants are in operation, two are under construction, and four more, including Formosa’s megaplex—which itself includes 14 unique facilities—are proposed. This concentration of industry is enabled by zoning laws. Typically, land-use plans separate residential areas from industrial ones, but in 2014, the St. James Parish council voted to change river-adjacent sections of the Fourth and Fifth districts from “residential” to “residential/future industrial.” “The council will fight to keep the petrochemical plants out of the white districts, but they roll out the red carpet … when it comes to the Fourth and Fifth” Districts, Rolfes said. “It’s worse than redlining. It’s shocking, really. The council has a written plan to wipe out Black communities.”