The Tragedy of Environmental Racism
by Isaac Blumenthal, Environmental Studies major, Northeastern University, class of 2024
Racism has dominated the headlines. Race-based environmental justice rarely makes the news, and therefore many are unaware of how a disregard for the care of our planet is impacting vulnerable communities within our society. Person-to-person racism is justifiably prevalent in our consciousness but Environmental Racism shouldn’t be ignored. Here I review “Capitalizing on Environmental Injustice: the Polluter-Industrial Complex in the Age of Globalization” and “Unequal Exposure to Ecological Hazards 2005: Environmental Injustices in The Commonwealth of Massachusetts” in an effort to make this injustice more widely publicized.
The movement to establish environmental justice began in the 1960s when people of color, more than any other group, began to experience exposure of air pollutants, hazardous waste, and chemicals. One of the leaders of this movement was Latino American civil rights activist, Cesar Chavez. He fought for farm workers to be protected from harmful pesticides they were exposed to in the fields in which they worked. In 1967, an event known as the “Houston Riot” occurred on the Texas Southern University campus. This riot was precipitated by the death of an 11 year old, Victor George, who drowned in a garbage filled pond intentionally located in a primarily black neighborhood. There were many similar such riots. In the 1980s, the environmental justice movement started to gain nationwide traction. In 1983, congressman and civil rights leader Walter Fauntroy was arrested while protesting hazardous waste sites that were located near primarily black communities. In 1987, the United Church of Christ published a report stating that 3 in 5 black or Latino Americans lived near a toxic waste site.
In 1990, environmental justice leaders signed a public letter to the “Big 10” environmental groups. In the letter, the leaders criticized group leadership for showing bias and racism, as evidenced by their policies, hiring and makeup of their boards. They were also pressured to take on the toxic contamination issues in places made up mostly of people of color. This letter influenced many environmental groups to add their first environmental justice initiatives. They did this by diversifying their staffs and by taking people of color into account when making policy decisions. Although this was a big step in the right direction, it has still not halted much of the environmental racism in America.
A recent egregious and well known example of environmental racism took place in Flint, Michigan from April of 2014 through December of 2015. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, African Americans make up the vast majority of Flint citizens. They were provided water which proved to be infected with poisonous levels of lead. The Flint citizens were exposed to this threat because of cost cutting measures by the city; their supply of water was switched from Lake Huron to Flint River. The river should have been properly treated with an anti-corrosion chemical to prevent lead particles and solubilized lead from coming out of the water pipes. Even General Motors manufacturing plant wouldn’t settle for this low quality water, instead they sourced water elsewhere when they realized that the Flint River water was contributing to rust forming on their newly machined parts. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), “The EPA set the maximum contaminant level goal of lead in drinking water at zero because lead can be harmful to human health even at low exposure levels.” Lead tends to make its way into the brain affecting the frontal cortex which can reduce function of memory, thought, attention, learning and more. Lead poisoning can cause permanent damage to brains that are still developing, therefore children can be left with life long issues after ingesting lead. Flint resident Elena Richardson said in an interview with CBS News that she feels “Nobody cares because there is a high crime rate here and there are more poor African Americans”. There are still many questions about this event, but the evidence points to the people of Flint receiving a tainted water system solely to save money, at the expense of the welfare of the state’s citizens. We have yet to know the full effects the lead poisoning will have in the future on those who were the victims of this deplorably irresponsible act.
Another example of environmental racism took place in Uniontown, Alabama in 2010. In 2008, one billion tons of coal ash spilled into the Emory River Channel in Kingston, Tennessee. Those who were mandated to clean this toxic mess were left with serious health conditions that included brain cancer, lung cancer and leukemia. Two years later in 2010, the Tennessee Valley Authority transferred four million cubic yards of coal ash from the spill into a landfill in Uniontown, Alabama. Uniontown is a small town which is home to about 2,300 citizens. A full 90.9 percent of those 2,000 citizens are black. More than 40 percent of the Uniontown population lives below the poverty line. The area in which the spill occurred in Kingston was declared a superfund site, an area that is polluted with hazardous material. The hypocrisy fundamental to environmental racism was on full display when the workers transporting the ash into the trucks were wearing hazmat suits, while at the same time, the local government deemed the material no longer hazardous Once the coal ash arrived in Uniontown, the material was no longer considered hazardous. Ironically, just 47 years before this ash spill into Uniontown, a mere 20 miles down the road, a historic march was led by Dr. Martin Luther King and Congressman John Lewis for equal rights for African Americans.
Environmental injustice stems from the “Polluter-Industrial Complex.” This term describes an organizational groundwork performed with a goal of taking apart environmental policies and protections for the public. Dr. Daniel Faber used this term in his book entitled, “Capitalizing on Environmental Injustice: the Polluter-Industrial Complex in the Age of Globalization”. It refers to the way bigger industries look to gain control over public thought and their perceptions in order to create more capital. According to Professor Faber, part of these industries’ goal is “discrediting the environmental movement” and “dismantling state programs and policies that promote environmental justice, protect public health and safeguard the earth”. The more control these industries have over politicians and the public, the more policy negatively affects poorer people, often people of color. Very often, big corporations within these industries reach out to publications in an attempt to have them downplay any environmental issue to grant the corporations more room to bring in capital. Any measure taken to care for the environment is often seen by these industries as “expensive and burdensome”. Lower income communities of mainly non-white citizens are prime targets for industries aiming to carry out any kind of environmental injustice. Faber writes, “In the United States, the less political power a community of people possess, the fewer resources people within have to defend themselves from potential threats”. Sometimes communities like this will be forced to accept living with hazardous facilities because they don’t have the political power to fight. Industries know that, and therefore, they prey on the lower class. Professor Faber provides a devastating statistic which properly depicts environmental racism. He writes, “In Greater Los Angeles, for instance, some 1.2 million people live in close proximity (less than two miles) to seventeen such facilities, and 91 percent of them (1.1 million) are people of color”. The more research that is produced proves yet again how unfair our environmental policies have become.
Dr. Faber, in a paper co-written with Dr. Eric King, entitled “Unequal Exposure to Ecological Hazards 2005: Environmental Injustices in The Commonwealth of Massachusetts”, demonstrates another example of environmental justice. When looking at a 2005 study involving the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, it was discovered that nearly three times the amount of the state’s landfills were located within a mile of high minority communities compared to low minority communities. It’s no coincidence that these landfills are positioned near communities with little political power. As Dr. Faber writes, “The less political power a community possesses, the fewer resources a community has to defend itself; the lower the level of community awareness and mobilization against potential ecological threats, the more likely they are to experience arduous environmental and human health problems at the hands of business and government. As a result, poorer towns and communities of color suffer an unequal exposure to ecological hazards.” Those in power see minorities as an easy group to target when it comes to unloading waste or inflicting harm. Another alarming statistic is that while communities of color make up 9.4 percent of all towns included in this study, 41 percent of illegal waste sites are located in or near those communities. Some of the biggest waste contributors manage to hide their actions by using displacement methods such as observer avoidance displacement. Using displacement methods can help them dispose of their waste without the communities they are harming ever being aware. Unfortunately, there are an abundance of statistics displaying environmental racism that impacts millions of people daily.
In sum, communities of racial minorities suffer under environmental racism and it is truly a blight on our society. Poor people are unwittingly exposed, worse yet, the rest of society benefits while being unaware of the impact of our disregard for our planet. This issue needs to be explored further, but affecting change is often a challenge because powerful companies rarely acquiesce to the concerns of the poor. As the examples from Flint and Uniontown show, these hazardous living situations often lead to illness, suffering, and sometimes even death. We should do better.
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