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An Intro to Environmental Racism

By: Maya W.

What is Environmental Racism?

Environmental racism is a phrase coined by civil rights activist and former leader of the NAACP Dr. Benjamin Franklin Chavis Jr. He defines the term as “racial discrimination in environmental policymaking, the enforcement of regulations and laws, the deliberate targeting of communities of color for toxic waste facilities, the official sanctioning of the life-threatening presence of poisons and pollutants in our communities, and the history of excluding people of color from leadership of the ecology movements.” Despite this term originating during the Civil Rights Movement, the issue of environmental racism is still a very prevalent one. In 2018 the EPA published a study showing that non-Whites had air pollution that was, measured by particle matter, 1.28 times greater than the general population. Black people specifically faced pollution that was 1.54 times higher than average. In short, communities living closest to power plants, oil rigs, factories, fracking wells, and pipelines are at the most risk for being exposed to pollution which negatively impacts the health of these residents. These communities are almost always Black and Native American because of the history of redlining, which was the practice of denying loans, mortgages, and effectively segregating neighborhoods. Companies often refused to establish businesses in areas that were predominantly made up of minorities as well. These practices left neighbors vulnerable because of the lack of development.

Factories are usually located in vulnerable communities, risking the health of citizens that live there. Photo from: Goldman Environmental Prize

Environmental Racism in the News

One widely known example of environmental racism is the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. The problem arose when the city turned to the Flint River as its main water source temporarily in April of 2014. Many residents complained about the brown water flowing through their sinks and its foul smell and taste soon after, but these complaints, filed by the largely Black and working-class population, went ignored by city officials who continuously insisted it was fine. In August of the same year, E.coli and coliform bacteria were found in the water. It was months after the initial complaints when a memo leaked from the Environmental Protection Agency, in which the EPA and several independent studies confirmed what residents had been bringing to the attention of city officials all along: Flint's drinking water was indeed contaminated and contained high levels of lead. Finally, after months of government denial, Flint’s residents were finally provided with free water bottles and filters. However, the damage had already been done, as residents in Flint had been consuming and bathing in the grossly contaminated water. It caused a myriad of health problems, which increasingly strained the largely working-class population of Flint. The residents also had to spend their own money on bottled water before it was provided for free. This is just one highly publicized and visible example of environmental racism.

Many Flint residents had brown-colored drinking water.

Photo from: Dydek Toxicology Consulting

How to Dismantle Environmental Racism and Racist Policies

The key to avoid situations like Flint is to act proactively and try to prevent these catastrophes in the first place by dismantling the systems that make them so common in poor and minority populated neighborhoods. To do this we should:

  • Support local efforts to eliminate air pollution

  • Support local efforts to eliminate water pollution

  • Support BIPOC environmental activists and amplify their messages

  • Learn about the racist history of environmentalism

  • Vote for candidates that support a Green New Deal and progressive environmental policy, especially BIPOC candidates.

Discussion Questions:

  • The water crisis in Flint raises the question of if this is the way pollution is handled by city officials when it’s highly visible to the media and working class, minority residents, how often are these situations swept under the rug when contamination isn’t obvious to the people affected by it?

  • How can citizens continue to hold these factories accountable for their intense air pollution in vulnerable communities?

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