When we think about racism in America, we most likely think about police brutality, systemic racism, implicit biases, and other ways in which people of color in America are held back and treated unfairly in comparison to white Americans- some of the reasons why thousands of Americans took to the streets these past few weeks, in addition to honoring the memories of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and too many other black Americans who lost their lives to police brutality. But while issues facing the black community in particular (like police brutality) are more often problems that we can see, what about some of the more invisible issues, like the air we breathe or the water we drink?
The inequalities that exist between black and white Americans related to things like education and access to resources also exist with the quality of the environment they live in; this is called environmental racism.
Environmental racism is a concept coined by the environmental justice movement in the 1970s that acknowledges the racial disparities between those who live within areas of particular environmental degradation and those who live free from excess pollutants in the air and water. Cities like Flint and Detroit, Michigan, and St James Parish, Louisiana, (located in an area between Baton Rouge and New Orleans known as “Cancer Alley) are examples of the ways in which black Americans, in particular, disproportionately live in areas with high pollution levels and feel the effects of climate change like sea level rise. The pollutants found in the air and water of the aforementioned cities and many others are linked to higher rates of cancer, asthma and other respiratory illnesses, birth defects, and can exacerbate pre-existing conditions like heart disease.
Despite this issue being defined and the conditions that lead to this problem being acknowledged decades ago, environmental racism is still ongoing. More than half of the 9 million people living near hazardous waste sites are people of color, and black Americans are three times more likely to die from exposure to pollutants than their white counterparts.
In 2018, the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Center for Environmental Assessment under the Trump Administration released their findings (during Black History Month no less) stating that black communities face dangerously high levels of pollution. And activists like Bartees Cox say that environmental racism is no coincidence, it is the result of decades of decisions made by those in power to target low income communities of color for landfills, coal mines, sewage plants, and other industries that cause a great deal of environmental degradation.
Dr. Robert Bullard, one of the leading experts on environmental racism, explains that while poverty has a lot to do with one’s proximity to environmental degradation, race is the highest indicator; he says, “Race trumps class. Even middle income African Americans are more likely to live in more polluted neighborhoods.” One study even found that black Americans who are making $50-60k per year are still more likely to live in polluted neighborhoods than white Americans who make only $10k per year.
And while the Trump administration has failed to address and act on their own findings regarding environmental racism, the fight is not hopeless; there is a lot that can be done on a local level to put an end to environmental racism. The first step any environmentalist can take is to understand that there is no environmental movement without the Black Lives Matter movement; you can’t champion environmental rights until you know that black Americans are disproportionately feeling the effects of pollution and climate change. You can support organizations like WeAct that work to alleviate the effects of environmental racism. WeAct was started in 1988 by activists who saw the impact of pollution upon the residents of their West Harlem community, and worked to empower and organize low-income people of color to build healthy communities.
In addition, contact local officials and express your concerns regarding environmental racism in their districts. Local officials can act on environmental racism by cleaning up polluted sites and working to ensure that all residents have access to clean water and air. And to understand the scope of environmental racism, check out books like “Toxic Communities: Environmental Racism, Industrial Pollution, and Residential Mobility” by Dorceta Taylor, an analysis of racially motivated zoning decisions across the United States. Further, use your social media and other platforms to expose instances of environmental racism and amplify the voices of those in need.
For more information about how to help in the fight against environmental racism, check out this article by WeAct: https://www.weact.org/2016/11/863/