Environmental Racism – A Brief and Blunt Introduction

Photo courtesy of: Leah Thomas (Instagram @GreenGirlLeah) – Intersectional Environmental Activist and Eco-Communicator

There is one concept that unites all environmentalists: protection of and advocacy for the environment. I think that on this we can agree. But what often gets disregarded in the environmental sphere is the protection of and advocacy for humans, and the misconception that they must not necessarily be intertwined. But, when it comes down to it, that is exactly what environmentalists are here to do – fight for the lives of the people on this Earth. Fight for the Earth so that there may be human life in the future. More specifically, I want us to focus on the humans that are most drastically affected by pollution and severe environmental burdens. Our fellow humans that will be most affected by climate change, and the ensuing severe weather events, flooding, and heatwaves. Specifically, I refer to communities of color – to valuable Black and Latinx humans. I am writing this today to emphasize the fact that you cannot be a true environmentalist without understanding environmental justice issues – moreover, you must not only understand, but advocate for reform, embody this knowledge, and make it your burden to deal with, in your daily life, and in your career. You must not only understand it, but utilize it to spark real, lasting change. You must interpret the results of the heavy chains of systemic racism, of the disproportionate effects that communities of color face as a result of climate change, and the environmental burdens that have become their weight to bear. What I am asking you to do is to personify the idea of Intersectional Environmentalism. 

Supporters of Intersectional Environmentalism do not disregard the aforementioned protection and advocacy for human lives that we so often see in environmentalism today. Making things intersectional provides that you, as an environmentalist, advocate for both the people and our planet. Supporters of this concept identify the intersectionality between the climate crisis and the injustices occurring to marginalized peoples. Intersectional Environmentalists advocate for reform with the most vulnerable communities in mind. Intersectional Environmentalists advocate for justice

To quote Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, a Black climate expert: “Our inequality crisis is intertwined with the climate crisis. If we don’t work on both, we will succeed at neither.” So, if you are worried about the climate crisis today, you should also remain informed on the disheartening amount of environmental justice issues that communities of color face today.

If you don’t believe that Black lives are endangered by police brutality, maybe you will believe that Black lives are endangered by incredibly disproportionate amounts of pollution in their environments. Provided by Fumes Across the Fence Line, a NAACP and Clean Air Task Force Study, here are just a few of the facts I would like to highlight:

  • “Each year, the oil and gas industry recklessly dumps 9 million tons of methane and toxic pollutants into our air, disproportionately impacting the health of African American communities across the country.
  • The oil and natural gas industries violate the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) air quality standards for ozone smog due to natural gas emissions in many African American communities, causing over 138,000 asthma attacks among school children and over 100,000 missed school days each year;
  • There are 91 counties across the U.S. that are building oil refineries or where refineries exist close to more than 6.7 million African Americans, disproportionately exposing the community to toxic and hazardous emissions such as benzene, sulfur dioxide and formaldehyde.”

In addition, as proven by the Clean Air Task Force’s Fossil Fumes report, “many of these toxic pollutants are linked to increased risk of cancer and respiratory disorders in dozens of counties that exceed U.S. EPA’s level of concern.” That’s right – our government and our society allows oil refineries to continuously be built and operate in and around communities of color, disproportionately exposing them to extremely detrimental toxins and fumes that may lead to asthma, other respiratory issues, and cancer, which we all know can be deadly.

Fumes Across the Fence Line, a NAACP and Clean Air Task Force Study, sums it up precisely by emphasizing the “life-threatening burdens placed on communities of color near oil and gas facilities are the result of systemic oppression perpetuated by the traditional energy industry, which exposes communities to health, economic, and social hazards.” Let me make one thing clear: your skin color, your ethnic heritage, the body you were born into, should not mean you will never have access to clean drinking water – it should be a human right! The color of your skin should never condemn you to environmentally caused disease and illnesses, nor should it ever dictate your access to breathable air. And yet this is truly the society we live in today…

Racism can be understood in many forms, including as a public health issue, and as an environmental issue. Whether or not you understand that racism exists today in the United States, it is absolutely evident that it did in the past, and this we can all acknowledge. We can all back racism up with facts, statistics, laws, court cases, and cold hard history. Author Ta Nahisi Coates explores the long, grueling chain of events which resulted in African Americans and other people of color (POCs) to be brought to lower socioeconomic standings in her article The Case for Reparations. Susan Holmberg and Dorceta Taylor delve deeper into how this enduring racism and social injustice intertwines with the complex environmental issues that have arisen in our society today in their articles Boiling Points: The Inextricable Links Between Inequality and Climate Change and The Evolution of Environmental Justice Activism, Research, and Scholarship, respectively. Together, these three authors create a compelling argument which encompasses the heart of racial inequality and the people who find themselves bearing the brunt of our planet’s environmental concerns.

I feel that it is important to read Coates’s article before digging any futher into this topic, as it thoroughly addresses the racial discrimination and the cruel injustices that have occurred for hundreds of years in American society. It is critical to understand that these people did not “get themselves into this situation,” but, rather, were forced into it by an unforgiving front of white supremacy. Those who forced POCs, and continue to force POCs, into these poor, polluted neighborhoods are the same individuals who continue to drain POCs of their money today. These are the same corporations and bodies of wealthy white people that are contributing to the pollution and degradation of our planet at much higher rates when compared to POCs, and then refuse to own up to the responsibility of cleaning up after themselves. In fact, whites are overall less concerned about climate change than POCs. This could be due to the fact that POCs know that they will be scrambling to clean up the mess white Americans have left for others to manage. It also could play into the fact that African American people had practically no say in these issues for hundreds of years, and, even today, true equity remains a fantasy for many marginalized people. Black Americans remain with less of a say in US politics, as “the inability to fully participate in the democratic process translates into a lack of political power.” The near majority of Black children live below the poverty line. Nearly a quarter of Black Americans rely on food stamps, and Black members of society have much higher incarceration rates. Even today we are seeing instances of Black voter suppression and the dark history of hate crimes loom ever present. Our society has made it so incredibly difficult for POCs to rise up out of the socio-economic ruts society has so cruelly forced them down into. And, while I truly do believe that POCs, or anyone for that matter, can “pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” as we like to say, I believe the issue at hand is incredibly complex. This issue cannot be solved in totality by referencing an unfortunately slight group of POCs with steeled mental determination to cause 360 degree revolutions within their lives. We absolutely should idolize such individuals for their impressive feats and accomplishments, and look to them as role models for all, but we should not reference them in an attempt to disregard systemic oppression. We should continue to lift them up and praise them for their accomplishments, while simultaneously working to dismantle systemic oppression.We cannot look at it as, “just because some POCs succeed to the equivalent of their white peers, that therefore all POCs should be just as easily able to succeed to the same extent.” To put it into perspective, when the first woman obtained similar status in a corporation as her male counterparts, female rights activists did not say “one woman has succeeded, so now all women should be able to do the same – our job is done” – of course not! Female rights activists kept fighting for equality and equity, and are still fighting for it to this very day. 

To argue against many conservative individuals in their own lingo, I do not want to encourage POCs to “succumb to the soft bigotry of low expectations,” as coined by Michael Gerson. There are clearly so many instances in which incredible feats are made by POCs who were born into less than favorable conditions. Two people born into the same circumstances, for example, poverty, can both face hardships in many ways. However, the Black person, the POC, always has one more hurdle to jump, simply due to the color of their skin. This is something that so many white people choose to ignore, or simply fail to understand. Again, is this to say that there are no POCs born into poverty who have worked incredibly hard to bear lives of decadence, fortune and wealth, or were born into such situations? No – of course not. Is this to say there are no white people born into, or facing, equally unfortunate living situations where they might be exposed to poverty, or encounter abuse, or live in single parent homes? No! There are many exceptions, but this cannot diminish the ultimate, dissonant truths of our societal framework, sloppily slapped together and tarnished by hundreds of years of racism. Today, we see the ensuing, continuing disparities between communities of color, and non-Hispanic white Americans, as a result. 

I agree that reform needs to be made through policy, education, access to healthcare, and so much more, in order to really get at the root of the problem. I truly believe this is a belief shared by many Democrats and Republicans when examining desired results rather than the root of the issue itself. My point remains, however, that people of color should not have to find themselves in these less than favorable situations in the first place, nor ever have to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” especially when the real reason why many POCs are in these positions of inequity does not reflect at all on their intelligence, abilities, nor capacity for accomplishment. Rather, this pattern occurs due to hundreds of years of systemic oppression, and we would be incredibly naive and misinformed to assume otherwise. 

 Before I move forward with the concept of environmental racism, it is critical to understand redlining; Redlining and segregation instilled by racist laws decades ago still cluster POCs around toxic power plants and oil refineries today. Redlining can be explained as the practice of “banks and insurers concentrate[ing] black and other minority homeowners within certain neighborhoods,” which occurred most predominantly in the mid-1900s across American cities. Regardless of reforms that have made the practice illegal, the detrimental effects have “persisted through entrenched segregation; economic inequality; lack of public services to redlined communities; and air quality deterioration from urban highways, industrial plants and landfills.” One of the most well known examples of the persisting results of redlining is Cancer Alley. Cancer Alley, as it is colloquially called, is a 85 mile stretch of land that contains over 150 oil plants and refineries, located between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Louisiana. Within this 85 mile stretch, there are abnormally and concerningly high rates of cancer, and so many instances of poorly understood illnesses and unexplained health issues leading to death, which is how the area understandably got its name. Studies on Cancer Alley once again indicate that impoverished, Black communities are more likely to be located in near industrial facilities, emphasizing that African Americans are therefore more likely to be exposed to life threatening pollutants than whites. Dr. Robert Bullard, author of “Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality,” argues that “race is still the most powerful predictor of where these facilities are located,” and continues to emphasize that “African Americans, even affluent African Americans, are more likely to live closer to and in communities that are more polluted than poor white families that make $10,000 a year.” Regardless of efforts made by our government in hopes to combat environmental racism, such as Bill Clinton’s executive order “Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations,” there are too few consequences and too little enforcement of these policies, permitting these serious issues to persist. This is why there are still extremely high levels of pollution dumped into rivers and released into the air around communities of color. One environmental justice advocate for Cancer Alley claims that people here “suffer from various respiratory issues, memory loss, the loss of liver function and uncomfortable skin conditions” and are exposed to “38% higher levels of nitrogen dioxide.” Nitrogen dioxide is a dangerous pollutant released into the air “produced by car exhaust and petroleum refining that is linked to high risk of asthma, heart attack, low birthweight and more benign symptoms like coughing, wheezing and bronchitis,” and, again, I emphasize that this pollutant disproportionately affects POCs due to their proximity to these highways, refineries and plants. I encourage you to watch various video documentaries on, and read more about Cancer Alley as an eye opening case study for environmental racism, as there is so much more that I have not covered in this discussion. 

Another commonly known example of environmental racism are the ongoing water contamination issues of Flint Michigan, a predominantly Black community. In summary, in order to cut costs, the city of Flint changed their water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River back in 2014. While this order was reversed about a year later due to the highly corrosive nature of the Flint River water on Flint’s old lead pipes, which resulted in double, and in some cases, triple the elevated levels of lead within community members, the damage was already done. In fact, the negative effects continued to affect people for years to come, and severe issues still persist today. One class action lawsuit argues alleged discrimination based on race “in how and why the predominantly African-American population was exposed to contaminated river water while the surrounding predominantly white population continued to receive clean Detroit water,” as stated by attorney Michael L. Pitt. A local pediatrician by the name of Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha pleaded that “lead is one of the most damning things you can do to a child in their entire life-course trajectory,” bringing attention to the nearly 9,000 children that were continuously fed water contaminated with high levels of toxic lead for over 18 months. The government-appointed civil rights commission in Michigan honed in on the issues surrounding water in Flint and reported that “the people of Flint have been subjected to unprecedented harm and hardship, much of it caused by structural and systemic discrimination and racism that have corroded [Flint], [Flint’s] institutions, and [Flint’s] water pipes, for generations.”

While current environmental justice issues are seemingly never ending, Holmberg’s article Boiling Point: The inextricable Links Between Inequality and Climate Change concisely ties in climate change to these broader issues, discussing the pertinence of the social and economic inequality that still taints this country today. Holmberg, complementing Taylor’s standings, argues that the people who will endure the worst outcomes of this rapidly forthcoming climate change are the poorest groups in America today, which includes POCs. Holmberg justly points out that these are the people who have the slightest ability to deal with and readjust their world to accommodate for these changes. Holberg articulates acute findings that deeply emphasize the hardships that communities of color and low-income people must persevere in light of climate change. To emphasize again, POCs have the highest exposure to toxic air, with nearly 80% of African Americans living within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant, whereas only 56% of whites encounter these same issues. May I also remind you that Black Americans only comprise 14% of the US population, emphasizing these clearly disproportionate burdens. And no, POCs do not willingly live in these areas, nor would any American in their right mind if they had the choice. Feel free to go back and review my comments on systemic racism and how it affects POCs if that didn’t sink in the first time. Similarly, Taylor’s article discusses racism throughout history, and how racial injustice goes hand in hand with certain peoples taking the brunt of environmental problems. One example that a lot of people find eye opening, is that Native Americans were kicked off of their own ancestral lands in order to create nature preserves, such as Yosemite National Park. The concept is convoluted to say the least, that the lands providing rightful sanctuary to Native Americans, who had lived in balance with the natural world for tens of thousands of years, were not considered “pristine” enough in the presence of native people. This is despite the fact that it was white settlers and colonists that initiated the industrial revolution, billowing tons of pollution into the atmosphere, sparking the national change in climate. Native Americans had no say in this matter, and, despite their cultural tendency to appreciate and mind the natural world, they, and other minorities, are left to deal with America’s environmental disasters with little to no support. 

Holmberg makes a point of suggesting solutions to these problems, however, offering that our society could help these marginalized groups, and, in turn, society as a whole, by focusing on energy efficiency and renewable energy development. This would create millions of new jobs and thus transform the American, and global, economy. However, connecting back to Coates’s article, many times, when put into practice, these policies do not end up benefiting the people they are intended to, and instead, the profits continue to go to corporate shareholders, leaving POCs in this same undeniable rut. Holmberg suggests that we must increase the need for renewable energy policies that foster community engagement while encouraging co-owned energy projects, allowing impoverished communities to be a part of the solution by generating clean energy, while benefiting from the profits themselves. All three authors provide relevant information on the difficulties that POCs must overcome in light of the climate crisis, while Holmberg and Taylor emphasize what environmental issues these marginalized communities will have to deal with without the support of the people causing the majority of the problems.

Furthermore, I would like to emphasize the environmental injustices cannot be ignored in the light of the COVID-19 crisis. People of color are more likely to have asthma, respiratory illnesses, and health issues, as I have mentioned, which make it incredibly more likely to get severely sick or die from the novel coronavirus, as stated by the CDC. If you have the time, take a look at the impacts of COVID-19 on the incarcerated populations of the United States, which are mainly POCs – maybe check out John Oliver’s most recent show for a quick, lighthearted intro into a despicable and unacceptable crisis unfolding in our society today. 

Before I conclude, I would like to acknowledge my privilege in the form of my whiteness, which I know has allowed easier access to this Ivy League education that I am so fortunate to be receiving – This education has provided me with well informed professors and highly passionate peers who have helped me discover and understand this information, while also giving me access to so many literary resources and brilliant minds to scour and debate with. I understand that I was in no way responsible for coming to these conclusions, nor am I the first to emphasize their importance. I only seek to uplift the voices and the stories that highlight environmental injustice in this country. I may only provide a cog in the function of the resolutions of these issues, but I will proudly continue to advocate and push for education and reform in any way that I may in this regard.

Again, Dr. Ayana Johnson says it best, and leaves us wondering, “how can people of color effectively lead their communities on climate solutions when faced with pervasive and life-shortening racism?” Let us not forget that, as environmentalists, we must continue to highlight the environmental injustices of this country, and carry it with us on our mission of saving this precious world. In order to help the planet, we must continue to help the people on it. 

Circling social media today is the “Intersectional Environmentalist Pledge,” courtesy of Leah Thomas (Instagram @GreenGirlLeah), and this is how it reads: 

Photo courtesy of: Leah Thomas (Instagram @GreenGirlLeah) – Intersectional Environmental Activist and Eco-Communicator

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