The response to another form of racism…
I want you to imagine living in a poor community that is mostly Hispanic, Black, Native American, or Asian. I want you to imagine that you are from that community. Imagine your neighborhood (or very near it) is routinely chosen for industrial development.
Imagine these buildings are more often than not, manufacturing hazardous materials such as chemicals, oil, livestock (chicken/cows/pigs) and other sources of pollution. Imagine the gross smells of these places drifting into your home. There are no bike paths, well-kept parks, or other kinds of green spaces here.
Imagine most of the people you know, many of whom are your neighbors — suffer from asthma, various forms of cancer, obesity, or other chronic illness. These illnesses are not widespread amongst the richer, primarily white communities, that live elsewhere… far enough away they can not smell your daily reality. Because of their wealth, they are not the target home for the previously mentioned polluting industries. These ‘higher-class’ rich communities have thoughtfully planned beautiful parks, bike paths, and quick access green spaces…
Importantly, their wealth gives them the mobility such that, if they live around something they don’t like, they can afford to move.
This is the concept of environmental racism and captures the need for environmental justice.
This may not be very hard to imagine, because this is the reality for many and it is well documented. For example, if you take a drive through the South side of Tucson and then drive up to the Foothills, you will notice very big differences.
There is a spectrum of environmental advantages and disadvantages between rich and poor. For the lower-class (and occasionally) even middle-class minority communities, there are abundant environmental burdens that increase as time passes, with few environmental benefits. Meanwhile, richer upper-class communities experience frequent environmental benefits and they too, increase over time and very few environmental burdens.
Environmental burdens (being forced to live with the byproducts of dirty industries) are disproportionately spread and lie heavily on the poor. This is the norm throughout America.
“Whether by conscious design or institutional neglect, communities of color in urban ghettos, in rural “poverty pockets” or on economically impoverished Native-American reservations face some of the worst environmental devastation in the nation.” – Dr. Robert Bullard, Confronting Environmental Racism: Voices from the Grassroots
Dr. Robert Bullard was the first to discover what is now a statistical fact: Poor people of color are hit the hardest with environmental issues. They live, work, and play in America’s most polluted places.
It began in the 1970s when he discovered that Houston landfills and incinerators (yes, those places that are literally miniature Hells on Earth) were much more often placed near black communities compared to white communities (even though black communities make up just one-fourth of the city’s total population).1
Sneaky-but-somewhat-obvious racism, you say? I think so too, I say.
Just as race is intricately tied with class, environmental justice is intricately tied with social justice.
Since the early 1960s, and probably even before, people of color have been struggling for improving and maintaining a clean and healthful environment. They have been fighting for the “fair treatment and involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies” (definition of environmental justice).
Meet Arizona-born Cesar Chavez for example. In the early 1960s, he organized Latino Farm workers and fought for safer working conditions and protection against pesticides in Californian fields.
One of the most famous and earliest documented acts of ‘environmental racism’ was the dumping of toxic industrial waste in Warren County, North Carolina in the 1980s. The mostly black and very poor community was chosen to be a burial site for 32,000 cubic yards of highly toxic contaminated soil2 . Protests were held by local residents, political leaders, environmental activists, and labor leaders but they could not stop the dumping of the toxic PCBs. It caught national attention. These protests likely sparked the dawn of the environmental justice movement.
There have been hundreds of cases throughout history, which show minorities (mostly Hispanic and Black communities) carrying the burdens of environmental hazards while already facing the hardships of racial discrimination.
Without a doubt, some improvements have been made, but today we are still struggling for a safe and clean environment to be able to live a dignified and healthful life. But it’s clearly far from over. Today we see tragedies like primarily poor and black Flint, Michigan suffering from toxic lead contaminated water. Neuro-physiologists say the children who were exposed to the poisonous water will be affected for the rest of their lives.
Source: Brennon Linsley, The Denver Post
We see Native American communities across the nation suffering with the impacts of pollution and protecting their homes from destructive corporations. Take the Gold King Mine for example, where in 2015 millions of gallons of toxic smudge “spilled” into the Animas River, forcing the Navajo nation search for other ways of watering their crops. Due to this environmental disaster and lack of other resources, the number of suicides spiked on the reservation following the spill3.
Take for example the Latino farm workers who are still not getting paid fair wages or safe working conditions. Driscoll’s Berries, the largest berry distributor in the world, get their berries from farms in Mexico and in the U.S. There, workers live in poor housing conditions, are paid very low wages for hours of work (workers in Mexico get paid only $6 for ever 12-15 hours of work – that works out to around $0.50 per hour), and inhale harmful pesticides. Driscoll’s farm workers have been organizing to bring attention to the injustices they face on both sides of the border.
The difficult of addressing environmental injustices is due to its systemic nature, and often times subtle yet negative effects. We must shed light on these inequalities so that people pay attention… especially the people who are a part of the problem.
As part of this struggle, we will have to address the inequalities, injustices, and inequities imposed on the communities who have instead been criminalized as part of a systemic effort to rationalize these instances of environmental racism.
We must no longer allow minorities who suffer from economic disparities to be excluded from political decision-making. If communal sovereignty continues to be a function of wealth, then purchased political power will continue to undermine the self (and communal) determination of supposedly ‘free people’ and perpetuate the system which invites environmental racism and injustice practically right into our homes.
It is a part of the struggle to address inequality, injustice, and the inequity for communities who have traditionally been criminalized, excluded from political decision-making, and subject of economic disparities.
Young people, poor people, minorities, LGBQ activists, environmentalists, human rights activists, are just some of the diversity of communities that need to be included in the decision making process. We need to have immediate access to parks, green spaces, and safe environments — not industrial parks, dead zones, and dangerous environments. We all want to be able to breathe clean air, drink clean water, play in clean spaces, and have our children grow up in even healthier places than that of our own childhoods.
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Don’t be silent.
- Bullard, D. R. Environmental Justice and the Politics of Garbage: The Mountains of Houston Cite 93 – Environmental Issues
- Bullard, D. R. Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality. 1990. Westview Press, Boulder San Francisco, Oxford
- Ingold, J. Gold King Mine spill’s economic impact fleeting in Durango, lasting in the Navajo Nation. 2016. The Denver Post.