Environmental Justice Series Part 1: The Other Side of the Tracks–What Is Environmental Racism?

When you go from the wealthiest neighborhoods in New York City to the poorest and blackest neighborhoods, you’ll notice that there is more and more trash on the streets and sidewalks. Reasons often given for this phenomenon is that the poor don’t value their home. But in a recent article in The Atlantic, Mychal Denzel Smith points out that the rich neighborhoods have public trash cans on every street corner, where there are fewer trash cans as you move toward predominantly Black neighborhoods. 

In spite of a state law prohibiting the practice, the Los Angeles Unified School District continued to add schools close to freeways during the past decade. Research has shown that ultrafine particles from vehicle exhaust is hard to filter, causing higher incidents of asthma and bronchitis among students attending these schools. The Los Angeles Unified School District is 10% white.

In 2014, decisions in Flint were being made by governor-appointed emergency managers. One of the decisions was to stop buying treated Lake Huron water from Detroit, and to instead get its water from the contaminated Flint River. To save money, they did not treat the water with corrosion inhibitors, which led to the release of lead from old pipes. There were immediate problems with complaints of contaminated water coming out of the taps of homes and businesses. With weeks, General Motors was allowed to switch back to water from Detroit, because the highly chlorinated water was causing corrosion of car parts on the assembly line. The citizens of Flint, which is 54% Black, waited 20 months for the state government to admit that it made a mistake, in spite of reports of lead poisoning in 40% of homes and an outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease.

In 19th century treaties between the U.S. government and the Sioux, the Sioux people–as a sovereign nation–were given “undisturbed use and occupation” of certain tracts of land in perpetuity including the sacred lands of the Black Hills. When gold was discovered in the Black 

Hills in the 1870s, trespassing prospectors asked for government protection, eventually ending in the massacre of women, elders and children at Wounded Knee. In 1927, white men dynamited the face and carved the faces of the European colonizers whose policies killed Native Americans and appropriated their land–a further insult to the Sioux’s sacred relationship to the Black Hills. In 2016, the pipeline company Energy Transfer Partners planned pipeline was deemed too dangerous to build near Bismark, North Dakota, lest a spill compromise the municipal water system. The alternate location supported by the company went through Sioux sacred burial grounds and 10 miles upstream from the reservation’s water supply. #NoDAPL (No Dakota Access Pipeline) protests were met with violence from local police and the U.S. government, at first with attack dogs, pepper spray, and strip searches of women protesters, then–in subfreezing temperatures–with water cannons, teargas, less-lethal bullets and concussion grenades, injuring hundreds. 

Benjamin Chavis

The term environmental racism was coined by Black civil rights leader Benjamin Chavis and defined as “racial discrimination in the deliberated targeting of ethnic and minority communities for exposure to toxic and hazardous waste sites and facilities, coupled with the systematic exclusion of minorities in environmental policy making, enforcement, and remediation.” His landmark national study Toxic Waste and Race in the United States of America, statistically revealed the correlation between race and the location of toxic waste. 

Black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) communities have long felt the impact of economic and environmental policies that have favored profit over people and planet. Decisions and actions by the government over land and property rights favor wealthy and white owners over BIPOC owners even when violence has been involved. In this time of #BlackLivesMatter and other uprisings, this is also a time to learn more about how racism impacts environmental decisions.

Next: What Is Decolonization?

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