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'Polluted Promises'

Potomac's Melissa Checker publishes book on minority neighborhoods.

Melissa Checker wasn’t surprised to see the disproportionate affect of Hurricane Katrina on the poor and minority neighborhoods of New Orleans. A graduate of Winston Churchill High School and professor of anthropology at the University of Memphis, Checker spent more than a year researching how minority neighborhoods in Augusta, Ga., are affected by local environmental practices.

TO MANY AMERICANS, Augusta signifies the elegance of the Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Professional Golf Association’s annual Masters Tournament.

But several miles from the splendor of Augusta National Golf Club is Hyde Park, a predominantly African-American community, where Checker lived and researched for 14 months. During that time, Checker interviewed local residents and regional officials for what would become her book, “Polluted Promises: Environmental Racism and the Search for Justice in a Southern Town.”

“Environmental racism” describes polluting practices and quality-of-life issues that affect minority neighborhoods while predominantly white neighborhoods go unaffected. For example, when Hyde Park residents formed community groups in 1968, many households didn’t have running sewer lines, Checker said.

“I realized what a complicated system that it is,” Checker said. There are few overtly racist actions aimed at poor neighborhoods, and there are no Jim Crow-style laws that prevent minority advancement. “That’s not the way racism works in this country any more,” said Checker.

What remains, said Checker, is a system where minority neighborhoods are exposed to damaging environmental practices.

Even before Hurricane Katrina struck, there were examples of environmental racism in Louisiana like “Cancer Alley,” a 100-mile stretch between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, with a 50 percent African American population, and some 300 industrial sites.

But Checker added, “I don’t like people to think it’s just limited to the South.” While she studied in New York, the city was in the midst of a debate on where to locate a proposed incinerator.

DURING REVISION of the book’s manuscript, Checker sent several chapters to the lawyer of one local company that had been sued by residents of an Augusta neighborhood. In response, said Checker, she received a long letter from the attorney representing the company, threatening a libel and defamation lawsuit. The company’s counsel said they would take no further action until after the book was published.

“I think that they tried to silence me about it,” Checker said.

Checker’s book was not published until August this year — the original publisher relinquished its contract months after Checker heard from the company.

The timing of her book’s release with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina has called some attention to “Polluted Promises,” Checker said, and the tragedy has created an opportunity to open up dialogue on race across America.

“Pollution is democratic,” Checker said. “The chemicals don’t know to stop … at the edge of a black neighborhood.”

CHECKER GRADUATED from Churchill in 1986, and her mother, Ruth Checker, works at Churchill and oversaw the launch of the school’s signature academies of performing arts and science, mathematics and technology.

“I feel very fortunate to have grown up with all the advantages this area gave you,” Checker said. “I think I realized in Hyde Park that in this country, so much is about having a safety net.” Checker didn’t make much money while she lived in Hyde Park, but she had the safety net of her home to fall back on, a benefit that most people in Hyde Park don’t have. “If something happens to them, that’s it,” Checker said.

Checker graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a bachelor’s degree in English, After working for a nonprofit in San Francisco for four years, she enrolled in New York University’s anthropology graduate program. “When I first started studying anthropology, I wanted to study social justice problems, especially related to race,” she said. “It never occurred to me that the environment was ever an urban issue.”

Researching and writing “Polluted Promises” taught Checker otherwise.

“It was an incredible experience on a number of levels,” Checker said. “I continue to be struck by how close-knit the neighborhood is. … It dismantled a lot of my stereotypes about what a poor urban neighborhood was like.”

Checker returns to Augusta on Friday, Oct. 28 for a book signing. “I’ll find out what people think about the book, which is terrifying,” Checker said. She looks forward, though, to a local party that celebrates the release of the book, whose proceeds will benefit local organizations.

“It really is about the power of grassroots activism and there are people out there fighting for it every single day,” Checker said.