Congressman Garret Graves and the discursive disappearance of communities of color in South Louisiana

On 10 October, 2017, Louisiana Congressman Garret Graves stood before the House Natural Resource Committee and introduced an amendment to designate Louisiana’s Cajuns as an endangered species. After making an impassioned speech about the failures of the federal government to preserve Louisiana’s coast, the tenuous future of the Mississippi River Delta, and Louisiana’s current campaign to fund and implement a river sediment diversion to rebuild land, Graves appealed to his fellow congressmen:

[Louisiana’s working wetlands] happens to be where Cajuns primary live in South Louisiana…If being an endangered species actually affords you additional protection and allows your habitat to be restored then that is what we want. Our habitat is disappearing and I don’t understand why animals get better treatment than people. Our amendment designates Cajuns as an endangered species so we can be afforded those same protections and has the federal government working with us and not against us.

On the surface, this might read as advocacy for an underrepresented Louisiana community—local papers ran headlines ranging in tenor from speculative, “Are Cajuns an endangered species?,” to fatalistic “Graves Insists on Saving the Cajun Before They Go Extinct.” Although the measure failed, the very possibility of Graves’ appeal simultaneously amplifies and erases how power operates at the intersections of governance, coastal restoration, resource use and management, land and water habitat preservation, race, and class.

To interrupt and interrogate these power structures, I offer a series of questions that, while better posed to Graves himself, I hope will illuminate how Cajuns’ access to land and other resources requires the endangerment, erasure, and movement of Indigenous nations and other communities of color.

What is and who are in need of “protections”?

For Graves, “protections” points to something very specific: the state-proposed river sediment diversion in Mid-Barataria Bay. Meant to reverse-engineer the effects of the Army Corps of Engineers’ 1928 containment of the Mississippi by letting the river return to areas it once flowed freely, the project is designed to build land where salt water and exploratory oil drilling have forced it to subside dangerously over the last 80 years.

While subsidence has been a significant problem throughout coastal Louisiana for decades, rebuilding the area around Barataria Bay, which lies immediately west of the Mississippi river’s mouth in Plaquemines parish, has only become a major state concern in the 12 years since Hurricane Katrina. By laying bare how vulnerable New Orleans was to man-made disaster, Katrina showed just how imperative the coast is: as it erodes, so does the land barrier protecting New Orleans, one of the state’s major economic resources.

In the five months since the proposed project was approved by the state legislature, Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA) has fought to fund and implement the diversion as soon as possible. Graves argues that by requiring an Environmental Impact Statement for the project—which promises to add at least two years to its completion timeline—the federal government is preventing CPRA from restoring Cajun habitat.

What is a “habitat”?

As defined in the Endangered Species Act of 1973, “critical habitat” identifies specific areas “within the geographical area occupied by the species” that are “(I) essential to the conservation of the species and (II) which may require special management considerations or protections.” In Section 5: Land Acquisition, the act states that the appropriate Secretary “(2) is authorized to acquire by purchase, donation, or otherwise, lands, waters, or interests therein.”

In naming South Louisiana Cajuns’ “habitat,” Graves makes Cajuns the region’s primary stakeholders. As there is no precedent for declaring humans an endangered species, the second clause of ‘critical habitat’—may require special management considerations or protections—would likely allow the endangered group, Cajuns, to identify these considerations and protections. This would presumably happen under the guidance of local government and/or the CPRA, whose ecosystems modeling has unequivocally shown the need for said management and restoration. Through this lens, the altruism of Graves’ claim dissipates; rather than fighting for a community he believes is underserved, Graves is using them as tools to fight federal red tape and consolidate power at the state level.

Who’s allowed to make, maintain, and claim habitat?

The most easily overlooked yet deliberate part of Graves’ land grab, however, is that it erases communities of color from the region. As the number of non-white residents increases in an area, so too does their vulnerability to pollution, resource exploitation, flooding, subsidence, and resettlement. This type of vulnerability—predicated on what geographer Robert Bullard calls “environmental racism”—is created by decisions made for, rather than by, vulnerable communities. Environmental racism in turn produces environmental sacrifice zones, or regions ceded to harm in the name of securing the health and survival of the largest number of people (typically in majority white, higher income communities in resource-rich and/or urban spaces). This is true in Lower Plaquemines parish, where the effects of leveeing and land subsidence—and by extension, coastal communities’ vulnerabilities—are most acute. Critically, environmental sacrifice zones are intentionally created with the expectation that some communities can and should be sacrificed for the survival of the broader population.

On whose land?

Writing about the erasure of First Nations peoples in a recent essay, Winona LaDuke says “This is the problem with history. If you make the victim disappear, there is no crime.” Graves does this several times over. First, by declaring South Louisiana Cajun “habitat,” he nativizes an early colonial community, at once erasing the existence of several Indigenous nations and equating settlement with inheritance. Second, in disappearing Chitimacha, Chikasaw, Choctaw, Biloxi, and United Houma nations from South Louisiana, Graves re-imagines the relationship between the region’s history and its land, water, and people, which, finally, critically denies the existence of the nation’s first climate refugees, a tribe of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw peoples currently drowning in the middle of Graves’ Cajun habitat.

After Andrew Jackson forced First Nations peoples across the Southeastern U.S. to join the Trail of Tears under 1830 Indian Removal Act, members of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw nation fled to the coast, making a place in exile on Isle de Jean Charles. Attached to the state by a single-lane highway, the island, which lies at the U.S.’s coastal edge in central South Louisiana, has lost 98% of its land since 1955. Man-made disaster and other effects of global warming are hyper-visible here, exacerbating residents’ vulnerability. A regular rain easily floods the highway, cutting Isle de Charles off from both the mainland and imperative resources; a hurricane compounds this isolation five-fold, then both eats away at the island’s meager landmass and forces a complete rebuilding.

In 2016, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded the tribe $52 million to resettle under its National Disaster Resilience Competition. This funding was a part of the state’s broader effort to address coastal change, the Louisiana Strategic Adaptations for Future Environments Program (LA SAFE) program, which helps coastal communities identify both their vulnerabilities and potential solutions to them. HUD’s recognition of Isle de Jean Charles’ situation shifted its residents’ lived experience from one of making due and surviving state-sanctioned vulnerability to being ‘mediated’ through federally mandated resettlement. However, most of Isle de Jean Charles’ remaining 85 residents do not want to leave the place they have called home—damningly, much closer to the legal designation of “habitat” than Graves’—for so long.

For people internally displaced on their own land, this state mandated resettlement, often articulated by legislators and locals as “for their own good,” is itself an erasure: as the state makes multiple attempts to swiftly reintroduce sediment to one part of South Louisiana, it is more than willing to declare another unsaveable. Sacrificeable, even. This highlights how the state engages coastal peoples that it either cannot comprehend or chooses to disappear; rather than treating Isle de Jean Charles’ residents as endangered, it “fixes” the problem by mandating yet another disappearance.


Rising waters on the Isle de Jean Charles. Photo By Karen Apricot New Orleans under CC license.

Why does it matter?

The discursive disappearance of Isle de Jean Charles shows that for Graves and his peers, endangerment operates on a spectrum: Indigenous peoples and Cajuns occupy opposite poles, bookending resources including land, water, flora, fauna, infrastructure, and state support. In this configuration, residents of Isle de Jean Charles are mobile whereas Cajuns are fixed; one community must adapt to survive while the other requires that the state adapt to ensure their—or more pointedly, its own—survival. That Isle de Jean Charles’ residents have been forced to adapt to survive the ongoing state sanctioned genocide to which LaDuke alludes (and are now being asked to resettle), points to the deep power imbalance inherent in Graves’ articulation of Cajun “habitat.”

While South Louisiana is subsiding as a whole, for Isle de Jean Charles’ residents, the threat of losing their “habitat” is an acute corporeal, cultural, and communal threat concomitantly reaching hundreds of years into the past and haltingly into a future where one place is easily exchanged for another. This begs the question: who is meant to be vulnerable? What are they expected to be vulnerable to, for how long, and by whose mandate? In South Louisiana, it is clear that some communities are more important to the storytelling of place—making, preserving, and restoring—than others: even as rhetorical strawmen, Cajuns are visibly included in the political and physical landscape of Graves’ South Louisiana.

In the end, while Lower Plaquemines will ostensibly benefit from the diversion, it is what the project leaves out that is most critical to this analysis. As Bullard explains, “Current environmental decision making operates at the juncture of science, technology, economics, politics, special interests, and ethics and mirrors the larger social milieu where discrimination is institutionalized. Unequal environmental protection undermines three basic types of equity: procedural, geographic, and social.”

By using Cajuns as a strawman to center state interests above all else, Graves both irreversibly rearranges the geography of the coast and sets a precedent for how policymakers deploy it in discourse. This in turn reinscribes the value of settler colonialist governance over Indigenous peoples’ and other underserved communities’ survival. Put differently, by forwarding and yet ultimately failing to secure endangered species status for Cajuns, Graves highlights the deeply colonialist threads that run through the state’s relationship to restoration, the federal government, its inhabitants, and its ecology.

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