Why Environmental Racism should be on Everyone's Radar
Updated: Jun 18, 2020
Thousands of protestors took to the streets these past couple of weeks to denounce police brutality and racism, highlighting a collective dissatisfaction at an unacceptable status quo. Racism runs deep through the veins of our societies, societies which have been built on the foundations of colonialism and white supremacy. A post-racial world is nothing more than a myth perpetuated to appease the privileged and silence the oppressed. And it is about time that we acknowledge our role as architects of injustice.
When we talk about racism, we too frequently overlook environmental racism. Environmental injustice is just one of the many facets of racism, but it plays a central role in our understanding of the social, legal and economic inequalities that Black and other minorities face.
Be it targeted prejudice or ingrained institutional bias, our societies have continually marginalised ethnic minorities and reinforced environmental inequalities. Black and minority populations are disproportionally exposed to environmental pollutants which have been linked to shorter life expectancy. The Environmental Protection Agency published a study reporting that exposure to particulate matter, a known carcinogen, is 1.5 times higher amongst Black communities than in white communities. Unsurprisingly, a similar trend was observed amongst Hispanics, who were exposed to 1.2 times more particulate matter than white people.
The most interesting finding, however, was that race had a stronger effect on exposure to pollutants than poverty, dismantling the age-old tale that poverty is the root of all evils. Whilst low income certainly magnifies the burdens of minorities, skin colour is the driving force behind environmental and health injustices. Digging deeper into socio-economic status paints an even more compelling picture - African American families with annual earnings of US$50,000-60,000 are more at risk of being exposed to industrial chemicals, air pollutants and poisonous heavy metals than white households earning US$10,000.
Black and other minorities are more likely to live in deprived neighbourhoods, in close proximity to industrial pollution - from the lead-poisoned water in Flint, Michigan to Louisiana's infamous ‘Cancer Alley’, minorities are more at risk of environmental hazards than their white counterparts. A poignant example of systematic environmental racism is the landmark civil suit against Houston and the state of Texas. The research revealed that, between the 1930s and 1978, 82% of the city’s waste had been disposed of in Black neighbourhoods. At that time, Blacks represented only 25% of the population.
But patterns of targeted injustice are not confined to industrial pollution. It is also illustrated by the relocation of minorities to areas of land considered worthless, such as plains vulnerable to flooding or other extreme weather events. Government records show that four of the seven zipcodes that suffered the costliest flood damage from Katrina were home to 75% of Blacks. As Mustafa Ali pointedly said, “environmental injustice is about creating sacrifice zones where we place everything which no one else wants”, that includes both people and health hazards. Climate change is reinforcing racial divisions by hitting minorities the hardest; populations that, on top of living in at-risk areas, lack the resources and governmental support to build flood-resistant infrastructures.
These instances paint an even more horrifying picture – minorities, already bearing the brunt of economic, social and physical abuse, were also at the centre of targeted environmental prejudice. They were the ideal victims because they had little leverage to oppose these big corporate projects, and on top of that they were Black, or Latinx, or Indigenous. Centuries of oppression and segregation had stripped them of all resources. And governments and corporations knew that. They unscrupulously exploited these vulnerabilities, violating human right after human right, while the privileged few basked in the deception of a ‘free and equal world’.