Environmental Racism: A Forgotten Issue

Updated: Jan 28

BY ALLYSON BRADLEY



A young African-American girl stares out over the horizon from her apartment balcony. She sees the billowing light gray smoke of a factory that produces some of the cheap ramen she has to eat from time to time. She wonders what is in the smoke, but without being taught to question it, she continues on playing. She’ll never know or fully grasp that it is no coincidence that she lives by several factories and oil rigs, or that being in close proximity to them can give people minor problems, like clogged pores or asthma.


Environmental racism is when hazardous environmental problems affect people of color disproportionately. It occurs frequently around the world in many forms, from waste to pollution. Despite it existing informally for many decades and being recognized officially since the 1990s, it has only been addressed legislation wise in the last few years. The effects of environmental racism are severely understated, to the detriment of many people of color, and to the benefit of corporations and political officials.


Environmental racism around the world began sometime after the industrial revolution. As the creation of factories spurred and the discovery of oil began to fuel the world, waste was being made. The capitalistic drive of well off countries creates huge amounts of waste, but no one was thinking about where it could go. They began throwing it in pits and ignoring it, not realizing the harm it would do to local environments and communities.


As time went on and the world became more globalized, governments began to legislate waste and pollution to reduce their negative effects. Corporations, forced to find alternatives, looked to third world countries to build their factories and dump their junk. This has darkened the skies of Asia and destroyed the lands of Africa. Where the United States differs, though, is that they heavily pollute their own country as well as other countries, despite legislation that is meant to combat it.


Source: Ricardo Levins Morales


The beginnings of environmental racism in America as we know it today can be found in the 1950s. Segregation was at its peak as white people settled in the suburban neighborhoods after fleeing the cities, leaving people of color in underdeveloped areas. The reason white people fled the cities was not only due to the minority population that boomed there, but also because of the rising pollution that was occuring. Once they arrived in the suburbs though, they used tactics such as redlining, zoning, and racial covenants to ensure that people of less desirable groups could not move in.


Forced to stay in the polluted cities, people of color breathed in decades of toxic particles that lead to high asthma and heart problem rates. Efforts to help low economic groups avoid life-threatening environmental conditions resulted in the environmental justice movement, of which Robert Bullard is the father.


The environmental justice movement has been around since the 1980s, when activists like Robert Bullard brought awareness about how poor people, especially those of color, were unfairly being exposed to cariogenic chemicals and a host of other toxins. In October of 1991, the first National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit adopted 17 principles that would go on to define the environmental justice movement and be the foundation for many grassroots efforts in years to come.


Source: Environmental Justice Network


General environmentalists shunned environmental justice advocates, halting further progress. Environmentalists feared that focusing on the racism faced would take away from reducing emissions. When they negotiated with corporations to curb emissions, they often ignored the issue of pollution in minority communities for a greater good. Their actions consequently led to less support for the environmental movement as a whole, and the loss of people of color as a presence within the movement.


Environmental racism, because it is so vast, exists in forms that many people of color aren’t able to recognize because no one educated them on it. The reason environmental racism can be so deadly is due to particulate matter, natural and manmade carcinogens that are microscopic suspensions of solids and liquids in the air.


Anthropogenic causes of that matter include automobile fumes, smog, soot, oil smoke, ash, and construction dust. Those alone contribute to high asthma rates, increasingly low birth weights, and high blood pressure. Long term exposure to the particulate matter was actually linked to racial segregation in the United States by the Environmental Protection Agency. Because of those factors, minorities are more likely to be exposed to chronic chlorine, aluminum, lead, and benzene exposure. But it is the sources of those particulate matters that is essential to providing environmental justice.


One main source that affects people of color disproportionately is the establishment of oil rigs, factories, and refineries in communities of low income families (who are often minorities). Los Angeles County, the hugest manufacturing center in the United States, is filled with oil rigs (i.e. Inglewood oil field) and manufacturing spaces (i.e. El Segundo). What Inglewood and El Segundo have in common is that they have high minority populations, high asthma rates, and are gentrified. A combination of those three factors leads to those of color and low economic status being forced to live in dangerously close proximity to the manufacturing hubs, and their white counterparts (despite being in the same city) being more likely to live farther away from those environmental polluters.


Source: Los Angeles Times


Another form of environmental racism is the dumping of waste near communities of color. In America ⅗ Black people live near a landfill, which is a breeding ground for bacteria and toxic fumes.


Many West and Central African nations are unfortunate victims of toxic waste as corporations ship all their waste there. From old unusable phones to non refurbished microwaves, 500,000 used electronics from first world countries entered Nigeria alone. The government nor its people know how to properly dispose of the e-waste (or even what's in the e-waste) leading to harmful health effects in African communities, which already suffer from a lack of medical care. While those examples happen generally, current events that have surfaced have shown just how horrible and ugly environmental racism can get.


A dark spot in America’s system is the inconsistencies in infrastructure. In Flint, Michigan (the city infamous for having toxic water for well over a year) still suffers from not having clean water. Stories of using crock pots in the bathroom to get clean and having to spend a majority of income to buy cases of water because turning on the faucet is no longer an option, plague the town. While various groups of people were affected by this, especially those in surrounding areas, 54% of the population of Flint is African American. Although a settlement was passed ($641 million) to help those affected, inquiries to get information have been blocked numerous times and those who can’t afford to move are forced to struggle even more under those crippling conditions.


Furthermore, Michigan citizens are no stranger to deplorable environmental conditions, considering it contains the most polluted zip code in the country, zip code 48217). Zip code 48217’s population is 70% black.


Another such place lacking in infrastructure is Lowndes County, Alabama; waste management is so poor that people use waste pits to dump their excrement. Outhouses and slog jars are not uncommon, but modern waste management is unfortunately, even after many politicians and celebrities toured the area. While these issues are out in the open, some are hidden away in crevices in the world not thought about too often.


In third world countries, fashion is the main culprit of environmental racism. It takes thousands of liters of water from poor countries to produce a pair of jeans and t-shirt individually, making the fashion industry the second largest consumer of water internationally. To make matters worse, their factories often pollute the air of the countries they are located in, dumping toxins on the communities and garment workers (who are often women of color). While the United States has people who speak up against pollution in poorer communities, barely anyone is speaking up for the people suffocating under the waste and capitalistic ambitions of corporations.


One may ask what solutions can be brought to address these issues internationally. Some believe that grassroot movements are needed (ex: The Sunrise Movement), but these alone may not be enough to fully stop corporations from abusing the communities of people of color. Others strongly advocate for stronger legislation to curb emissions. Though legislation of this kind often does not say where they have to cut emissions, so they leave most of it in poorer communities. What needs to be done however, no matter the approach taken, is the reminder and emphasis on the importance of a human life, because often these people are not thought of as human. Though their lungs burn the same as all of ours will one day.


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