Perimeter Protection: The Resiliency of Plantation Infrastructures in the South Carolina Lowcountry

Editorial Note: This post is part of our series highlighting the work of the Anthropology and Environment Society’s 2021 Roy A. Rappaport Prize Finalists. We asked them to outline the argument they made in their submission and to situate their work in relation to the field of environmental anthropology.

By Brian Walter, University of California, Santa Cruz §

Tidal flooding behind a new seawall-raising project. Photo by author.

ABSTRACT: After four consecutive years of hurricanes and recording breaking tidal flooding, the South Carolina Lowcountry’s enduring relationship with the ebb and flow of tides now figures as a harbinger of future destruction. This tidal relationship, amplified by climate change, is materialized in the backflowing pipes, racially uneven flooding of homes, and eroding dikes dispersed across the landscape. In this paper, I explore coastal defense efforts in the Lowcountry incited by this increased inundation, not as novel sites of a new messianic climate politics, but as they redouble attention to the racial histories and violences of the region, themselves part of a changing hydrological system. To do so, I critically follow the forms and logics of Lowcountry projects for perimeter protection, where restrictive notions of heritage are mobilized in the resilience discourse to create or maintain infrastructure preserving sites of antebellum history, continuing embedded legacies of slavery and the plantation in the built and hydrological environment. Ultimately, I argue that through efforts for perimeter protection, the liberal horizons of resilience projects are recast as a form of antebellum heritage preservation, revealing a conservative temporality of coastal resilience.

It is a clear fall night, the warmth of the fading summer still in the air. I am in old tennis shoes accompanying Louis, a local stormwater engineer who photographs flooding in the built environment. A king tide, one of the highest of the monthly cycle rolls in as we stroll a river-fronting road built on filled earth, routing traffic around a white, upper-class Charleston neighborhood. As the tide advances, we watch the tide lap against the rocky rip-rap armoring protecting this coastal edge, and eventually overcome the soft boundary between marsh and road. The water rushes quietly towards the lowest spots, searching out former creek beds, reforming a longstanding relationship cut off by this transportation infrastructure. This difference of just a couple of inches peels back layers of the built environment, a watery time machine revealing a past landscape ready to re-emerge. This used to be a marshy, Black and working-class area before it was cleared, filled, and whitened.

Louis snaps photos of this iconic corner as it slips under water and tells me it is hard to imagine sea-level rise unless you are in it, watching everything out there—he says gesturing toward the calm, dark river water—and knowing it is coming here.

This contemporary vulnerability to tidal inundation is no coincidence. The Lowcountry developed around tidal rice plantations, built on land dispossessed from native people, and utilizing a technical innovation extracted from enslaved West Africans that employed the influence of this large tidal amplitude to drain and flood fields to promote rice cultivation (Carney 2001). This profitable industry made colonial Charleston the wealthiest city in British America and helped determine the region’s reliance on slavery—40% of enslaved people entered the US through Charleston from 1700-1776 (Estes 2015)—as well as its development on productive, though precarious, low-lying coastal geography. Charleston is a tidal city, a formation that is both racial and geographic.

Removal of the John C. Calhoun Monument. Photo by author.

I explore the precarious edges of the Lowcountry to investigate “perimeter protection,” a common coastal resiliency strategy of hardening borders to protect a designated geography from inundation—in this case from tidal storm surge. Most seawalls and levee projects are an example of this tactic. Specifically, I examine the daily work of maintaining historic rice dike systems, and emerging discussions around a future US Army Corps of Engineers seawall megaproject aiming to protect the historic Charleston peninsula from inundation. In both cases I draw from ethnographic fieldwork with primarily white residents and engineers.

However, rather than understanding perimeter protection as part of the future-oriented practice of resilience, where layers of infrastructures are built for cities to “bounce back” from future calamities, I focus on the geographies of the past preserved and reanimated by these projects. Protecting white property and interests, these seawalls, dikes, and levees are better understood as the materialization of white anxieties about changing coasts and racial dynamics. I argue for an affective understanding of an erosion of white heritage, drawing parallels between concerns over crumbling coastal protection, and concurrent white engagements with contestations over confederate monument removal.

Building a set-back dike behind an eroding plantation perimeter. Photo by author.

In the South Carolina Lowcountry, there is a shared history of perimeter protection projects on rice plantations and in urban spaces, which both built enduring relationships with changing tidal systems. Today this infrastructural legacy is perpetuated in seawall projects protecting “historic” areas in downtown Charleston, and continual work to repair dikes on plantation heritage preserves. In both cases, tidal embankments supported by a discourse of heritage preservation, are used to enforce value-generating racial and ecological separations characteristic of the plantation (Beckford 1972, Davis et al. 2019, McKittrick 2013, Tsing 2012). However, these infrastructures and their politics are continually resisted by activists and a constantly changing coastline. This leads me to theorize projects for perimeter protection as forms of “plantation infrastructures,” which attempt to stabilize landscapes in order to extract value from the landscape and its inhabitants.

This argument contributes to my larger project “Sedimented Futures” in which I examine the situated forms of white supremacy imbricated in historical landscape assemblages in the South Carolina Lowcountry. This intervention builds on activist efforts to reframe contemporary issues of environmental racism within deep histories of racial oppression and intervenes in local “colorblind” discourses of adaptation. My work also contributes to research exploring the imbricated relationships between race and landscape in changing coastal areas by bringing together literatures on the plantation in critical geography with work in environmental anthropology, exploring the overlaps and productive tensions between these traditions.

Works Cited

Beckford, George L. 1972. Persistent Poverty: Underdevelopment in Plantation Economies of the Third World. New York: Oxford University Press.

Carney, Judith Ann. 2001. Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Davis, Janae, Alex A. Moulton, Levi Van Sant, and Brian Williams. 2019. “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, … Plantationocene?: A Manifesto for Ecological Justice in an Age of Global Crises.” Geography Compass 13 (5): e12438.

Estes, Steve. 2015. Charleston in Black and White: Race and Power in the South after the Civil Rights Movement. Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press.

McKittrick, Katherine. 2013. “Plantation Futures.” Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism 17 (3): 1–15.

Tsing, Anna. 2012. “Unruly Edges: Mushrooms as Companion Species.” Environmental Humanities 1 (1): 141–54.

Brian Walter is a Ph.D. Candidate in Cultural Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. His research and teaching interests bring together environmental anthropology, critical heritage studies, political ecology, and environmental justice, to untangle racialized landscapes in the US South. His research has been supported by the National Science Foundation, Wenner-Gren Foundation, National Geographic Society, and other organizations. He is in ongoing collaboration with multiple grassroots anti-flooding groups in the South Carolina Lowcountry pursuing just futures for the region.

This post is part of our series, 2021 Roy A. Rappaport Prize Finalists.