Environmental Racism Killing People of Color
By Stacy M. Brown
Decades ago, civil rights leader the Rev. Dr. Benjamin Chavis Jr., who now serves a president and CEO of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, coined the term, “environmental racism.”
It not only proved a true term, but it also linked several eras to a present day that still harkens back to centuries of demeaning and demoralization of Black Americans since the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade 500 years ago. Once the slave trade ended, other oppressive eras ensued – the Antebellum period, the Dred Scott decision, the American Civil War; Jim Crow; racial terrorism, the Civil Rights Movement and, throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, environmental racism, which has kept an immovable wedge between African-Americans and the rest of America.
In noting that environmental justice is an important part of the struggle to improve and maintain a clean and healthful environment – particularly for African-Americans, who have traditionally lived, worked and played closest to the sources of pollution – Chavis said that environmental racism is racial discrimination in environmental policy making and the unequal enforcement of the environmental laws and regulations.
“It is the deliberate targeting of people-of-color communities for toxic waste facilities and the official sanctioning of a life-threatening of poisons and pollutants in people-of-color communities,” he said. “It is also manifested in the history of excluding people of color from leadership in the environmental movement.”
With President Donald Trump castigating the science of global warming, it’s little wonder that today’s environmental policies not only target people of color when it comes to the placement and operation of unhealthy facilities, they also exclude people of color from being a part of the policy making process – even though they are the ones who are usually most directly negatively impacted by environmental injustices.
“The underlying message of environmentally racist tactics and strategies is that certain neighborhoods and certain people matter less than others, and that geographical vulnerability is inevitable, when in fact it is socially constructed to be this way,” said Dr. Deborah Cohan, an associate professor of Sociology in the Department of Social Sciences at the University of South Carolina – Beaufort. “The message is that some groups of people and some neighborhoods are okay to be dumped on and treated as garbage. After all, garbage is trash; it is what we’ve decided we no longer need or have any use for. It’s what we wish to dispose of as we have decided it has no value. The problem with racism and society’s response to it is that we have failed to see this most basic thing; that in order to do that much damage to a community, one must so thoroughly objectify and dehumanize the people in it that they become things that can be discarded and forgotten about. People’s ability to thrive under these hostile conditions is greatly compromised.”
While many celebrated the end of Scott Pruitt’s time as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, others argued that his brief tenure could have a lasting impact on marginalized communities dealing with poor health, water contamination, or air pollution, because of environmental injustice. And, Trump’s policies revealed that the president himself cares little if at all about environmental racism.
Studies have shown that Black and Hispanic children are more likely to develop asthma than their white peers, as are poor children, with research suggesting that higher levels of smog and air pollution in communities of color is a factor. A 2014 study, as reported by VOX, found that people of color live in communities that have more nitrogen dioxide, a pollutant that exacerbates asthma.
The EPA’s own research further supported this. Earlier this year, a paper from the EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment found that when it comes to air pollutants that contribute to issues like heart and lung disease, Blacks are exposed to 1.5 times more of the pollutant than whites, while Hispanics were exposed to about 1.2 times the amount of non-Hispanic whites. People in poverty had 1.3 times the exposure of those not in poverty. Even so, under Pruitt enforcement at the EPA has dropped considerably, with civil rights cases suffering in particular.
“Environmental racism is real. As documented in Richard Rothstein’s 2017 book, ‘The Color of Law,’ extensive federal, state and local government practices designed to create and maintain housing segregation also assured that polluting facilities like industrial plants, refineries, and more were located near Black, Latino and Asian American neighborhoods,” said Bruce Mirken, a spokesman for The Greenlining Institute, a public policy advocacy group in Oakland. “Extensive data show that low-income communities of color still breathe the worst air and have excessive rates of pollution-related illnesses like asthma and other respiratory problems. These problems won’t fix themselves. As we move away from oil, coal and gas to fight climate change, we must consciously bring clean energy resources and investment into communities that were for too long used as toxic dumping grounds.
What’s more, a scan of environmental boards, C-suites, foundations, campaigns and funding, reveals a pronounced lack of diversity within the environmental movement that results in a white progressive world view that still values science and the physical landscape more than people – especially Black and brown people – according to Felicia Davis, founder and CEO of the HBCU Green Fund and sustainability director at Clark Atlanta University.
“These communities are also less affluent and more likely to be located near, and experience, environmental hazards. Katrina and Flint exemplify environmental racism addressed by environmental justice advocates,” said Davis, who’s also the author of “Air of Injustice,” and serves on the boards of Green 2.0, The Chattahoochee River Keepers, and the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation. “There is simply no denying the difference in response to predominantly Black compared to predominantly white communities.”