Dr. Joy Banner is all too familiar with the uphill battle facing Black communities in Louisiana’s River Parishes. As Co-founder of the Descendants Project, an organization committed to the intergenerational healing and flourishing of the Black descendant community in the Louisiana river parishes she focuses her work on the intersecting histories of enslavement, settler colonialism, and environmental degradation.
As descendants of enslaved men, women and children who were forced to work at one of hundreds of plantations that spanned the Mississippi River from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, these communities today continue to battle large industrial polluters like the petrochemical plants that began purchasing plantation land back in the 1970s.
“So, you know, we've had oil producers and they've been making plastic, you know, since before I was born.”
Over the years, Banner said this industry, through a number of different tactics, has managed to acquire land for their polluting facilities.
“As a family, we sold land to what would eventually become Formosa without even knowing. They went under another name and then sold all of their assets to what would become Formosa,” she said referring to the massive plastics company which was at the center of a rezoning scandal back in 1990.
In 1996, Lester Millet Jr., former council president of St. John the Baptist Parish, was sentenced to nearly five years in prison for using and abusing his official position to push through a new zoning ordinance in an attempt to help Formosa build a rayon pulp factory next to Wallace, Louisiana. It was later found that Millet engaged in “money laundering and extortion and issued threats of expropriation to residents to coerce them into selling their land to Formosa”.
“So at the time we didn't even know that we were selling our land to a company that was planning on displacing us,” Banner explained.
Dr. Banner, along with many Black residents in the River Parishes, felt a wave of disappointment from the latest EPA ruling in which it closed several civil rights complaints and an investigation into whether the State of Louisiana had violated the Civil Rights Act by permitting industrial development that exposed Black residents to toxic air pollution and extremely high cancer risks. Banner said it was disheartening to see the federal agency not working alongside communities that are fighting for their survival.
And it is a fight that seems impossible at times. Communities with limited resources fighting against giant corporations with multi-billion dollar budgets. According to Dr. Banner, some of these corporations and industries continue to get government support.
“Our government is stepping in and either giving tax incentives or they are making it easier in terms of permitting or supporting projects that are killing people.”
“It’s like, well you're in a disadvantaged community, you're in an underdeveloped community. Hey, these Black folks' lives, these Brown people's lives, these poor people's lives are miserable anyway. So if you go in there and give them a few more years where they maybe have a job, you're not really losing anything, right?”
“Everything is excused because of economic development,” Banner went on to say.
“It's like it doesn't matter how problematic the chemicals are, or how bad the pollution is.”
At the heart of her concerns are the dangerous petrochemicals produced by plants in “Cancer Alley”(the industrial corridor which earned the nickname due to residents’ exposure to pollutants that have been linked to cancer). As the key ingredients of plastic, petrochemicals have been shown to be incredibly dangerous to human health. People living near petrochemical production facilities have a higher risk of numerous types of cancer, adverse birth outcomes, asthma, respiratory illness, and kidney disease. According to Dr. Banner, communities in the River Parishes get exposure to these pollutants both upstream during production, and downstream when plastic becomes litter.
“We are dealing with the toxic chemicals that are involved in plastic production, and if plastic gets recycled, we are dealing with those chemicals being broken down and exposed to those chemicals again.”
Dr. Banner also debunked the popular myth that recycling can even make a dent in the problem.
“It's simply not the solution. If we're just producing, producing, producing, and then thinking we're gonna recycle our way out of this, that's not going to be effective. And it hasn't been effective.”
As Dr. Banner explained it, there's a deep and painful legacy in the River Parishes where Black communities and their experiences have been largely ignored and not just by polluting industries. The region's plantation tourism industry is a bustling economy that attracts scores of visitors from around the world each year. Only, what a lot of those tourists may not realize is that the very grounds they're touring are of great cultural importance to African-Americans.
“We're in a community that is problematically known and marketed as plantation country because of the plantations that are still here. Many visitors come to plantations and visit because they're attracted to the architecture, or you know, this antebellum way of life, or either the moonlight and magnolias, or the mythology around plantations.”
But as Dr. Banner pointed out, “My people were enslaved at these plantations.”
“As school children, you go on field trips to plantations. The plantation is like your museum. The plantation is your park. The plantation is a place where your best restaurants are.”
“We feel this cognitive dissonance with it, but no one gives us the space to say, ‘As a Black American, this is not suited for me! I'm having questions here, I'm having problems here. I would love to be able to work it out with someone.’”
“It immediately gets shut down and we are the bad people for making usually the white people around us uncomfortable.”
“My African American origins started because of slavery. Yet, when you're going into these spaces that are the origins of African-American culture, you're not allowed to talk about it.”
“Here we are sitting in our beautiful Black skin. I am here now because of my ancestors being enslaved, and yet I can't talk about it.”
Dr. Banner said the time to talk about it is now. She said she would like for people to understand how these different legacies and histories interconnect and ultimately affect Black descendant communities like hers. For Banner, that means listening to the Black residents who want to defend and protect the land and homes from further development and harmful industry. This explains why much of her organization's work focuses on burial sites - the final resting place of slaves - the graves where the ancestors of descendants are buried.
“We are in the afterlife of slavery. And so to us, our identity as being descendants connects to the need to tell the truth, which means that our ancestors did not have a choice in where they were buried and as a result, the sugar cane fields is where they are.”
“The petrochemical plants that are on the grounds of former plantations is where we'll find the burial grounds for our ancestors.”
“If we value what we say we value, if we respect what we say we respect, it's really hard for people to deny or say that I am going to disrespect somebody's final resting place.”
Despite major losses, Dr. Banner and her community recently scored a major victory against the polluting industry. The last stretch of undeveloped land in the 85-mile long chemical corridor of “Cancer Alley” was placed on the list of endangered sites by the National Trust of Historic Preservation, due to its rare cultural and historical significance.
“It was a very important designation and distinction,” explained Banner.
“People that are keeping tabs on what's happening and are planning development here, this designation is making them think twice, and that's what we really need people to think twice about who they're impacting and what they're impacting by developing here.”
The fight continues for Dr. Banner and the Descendants Project. She wants people to know they too can write their own chapter of history by standing up to big polluters.
“Until you are in their face and you are like, ‘Stop killing me. Stop causing cancer. Stop sending babies and children to the hospital with asthma problems.
I need you to stop and see me as a human being'. Until we get into people's faces and be that assertive about it, we are gonna continue to have this problem."
Watch the video report by Alexis Young of People over Plastic here:
This story is part of a People over Plastic investigative series that examines key environmental justice issues in America’s Gulf South. The series will feature stories about BIPOC and low-income communities living in the shadow of petrochemical production. Follow us on Instagram, TikTok, LinkedIn and Twitter. You can subscribe to our monthly newsletter here.