Last month, much of white America expressed shock over a news story about racism in the health care system. A report from “The Washington Post” explained how a widespread algorithm in hospital systems “dramatically underestimates the health needs of the sickest black patients.” This is not news to non-white Americans who have lived and breathed the legacy of discrimination in the healthcare system that stems back to the era of slavery. These discrepancies are inextricably linked to the myths promulgated during slavery in order to justify the institution that black bodies feel less pain.
While there has been data for decades indicating the way that African Americans are neglected by healthcare professionals, there is an increasing amount of scholarship in the past decade surrounding healthcare discrepancies across race. Although America’s history is a grotesque pattern of the physical abuse of African Americans, the Tuskegee syphilis study stands out as a critical junction in the intellectual investigation into medical discrepancies across race. In this now notorious study, young Africana American men were purposefully infected with syphilis in 1932. Another important moment in this trajectory is the case of Henrietta Lacks. Dr. Hoard Jones from The Johns Hopkins Hospital took her cells and made scientific breakthroughs without her consent. Many other low-income African Americans were also abused in this way at the hospital, yet their names and stories go unrecognized.
Although doctors and health care professionals do not cause the health atrocities from the Flint, Michigan water crisis, the story of Flint’s water fits into this trajectory. Flint’s water crisis is not an arbitrary misallocation of funds—it is an intentional disregard for the bodies of people of color, just like the hospital algorithm. Before Flint, Michigan there was Anniston, Alabama, a story that the mainstream media has already chosen to forget. The legendary lawyer from the O.J. Simpson trial and celebrated intellectual, Johnnie Cochranm won of the largest environmental settlements ever in 2003 on behalf of almost 20,000 plaintiffs. Anniston, a predominantly black town, was purposefully the poisoned by Monsanto because it was cast aside. Monsanto saw the black residents as “more resilient” and not deserving of their health, (a remnant from the justification of slavery), and poisoned their waters and their land. Additionally, the majority-minority neighborhood of Fort Lauderdale, Lincoln Park, is filled with toxic waste. Residents have been fighting against the waste that permeates parks, water sources, food supplies and greatly affect the health of residents. And yet, this crisis and act of intentional positioning have gone entirely unnoticed by the mainstream media.
While corporations and local governments continue to poison black communities (or if not poison, they refuse to fix them), in the rare cases when white folks suffer from environmental factors, the world stops in order to fix it. The blockbuster movie, “Dark Waters” follows the true story of a white lawyer who helped a predominantly white town seek retribution from DuPont for poisoning their land. Critics acclaim this movie for its progressivism, outlook on climate change, anti-establishment view. Even though this story is a true story, it shifts the narrative away from the real problem. Here is an analogy that describes the way that this movie defines and changes the narrative around poisoning. Imagine if one black police offer lightly tapped a white person on the wrist and it resulted in a public outcry and its own movie. Yes, that incident may have happened but not only is it so counter to the mass majority of incidents, but it also whitewashes all of the other, must stringent incidents. The movie “Dark Waters” further promulgates the myth that environmentally poisoning is colorblind and that the United States is a colorblind society. Structures within mainstream media further this cycle in which the media and structures of racism go back and forth oppressing the truth.
The way that communities of color are perpetually undermined by environmental racism flows back to the idea of knowledge production. Science is not without its stake in institutionalized racism. Scientists rarely study the health effects of chemicals that runoff from power plants and other industrial sites because there is little interest in the health of African American communities. Additionally, too many scientists believe in the neoliberal mantra of individualism, ignoring the decades of redlining, racist housing mortgage bundles, biased real estate firms, and more that keep African American (and also indigenous) communities in these toxic waste dump. The few scientists that do dare to investigate the systemic poisoning of black bodies do not get funding because again, black and brown lives are not deemed worthy of aid and examination. The way knowledge is produced (or not produced) shapes the future of knowledge production. The scientific community has rich history of intervening only when it is too late. Too many chemicals that run in the water, soil, and air of African American communities are not examined and investigated until cancer, asthma, and other chronic illness nearly kill off an entire community. The institution of toxicology research too often forgets that “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”