Environmental racism: any environmental policy, practice, or directive that disproportionately affects non-white communities.
The United States is deeply rooted in racism. This self-proclaimed “free world” was subsequently founded on the principles of “free land” (stolen from Indigenous people), “free labor” (viciously extracted from slaves), and “free men” (exclusively white men that held property). Due to these origins, institutional racism shaped the economic, political, and ecological landscape, and has underpinned the exploitation of both land and people.
Environmental racism is reinforced by government, legal, economic, political, and military institutions, and is largely unaddressed in the contemporary environmental justice movement. While the civil rights movement in the 1960s made significant progress, people of color continue to struggle for equal treatment in many areas, including environmental justice.
Most governmental agencies, including the EPA, have disregarded people of color in their attempt to create a more environmentally conscious country. These people are most vulnerable to the ravages of pollution and industrial encroachment. It has been a relentless struggle for people of color who are affected by these disastrous policies and actions to convince white judges, juries, policy makers, and governmental officials that racism continues to exist within environmental protection, enforcement, and policy formulation.
Communities that are subject to the worst pollution are those with crumbling infrastructure, ever present economic disinvestment, deteriorating housing, inadequate schools, unemployment, a high poverty rate, and a disadvantaged healthcare system.
However, income alone does not account for these realities. Housing segregation continues to play a key role in determining where people live. Additionally, urban development of communities are subject to the forces and relationships of industrial production which are influenced and subsidized by government policy. The perpetuation of race-based decision making to influence housing, education, employment, and criminal justice exacerbates this issue.
A 2012 report from the Department of Housing and Urban Development shows the extent of housing discrimination against people of color. Compared to their white counterparts, the report found that people of color are shown fewer homes and apartments. This discrimination raises the costs of the housing search and restricts their housing options; forcing them to live in oftentimes cost effective, decrepit neighborhoods that are subject to environmental devastation due to climate change.
The reality of this situation is: Three out of five Black Americans live in areas near toxic waste dumps, 46% of public housing units are within a one mile radius of factories emitting toxic gases, and children of color are more likely to be poisoned as a result of environmental impacts than white children.
Pollution and climate change effects are disproportionately put out to underprivileged communities. Take the situation in Flint, Michigan as a contemporary example. The people of this town are facing a lack of clean, reliable drinking water. With aging, crumbling infrastructure, the Flint community lacks funds to pay for upgrading it. To make matters worse, about 50 percent of water utilities, which serves about 12 percent of the population, are privately owned.
The region’s history of mining and industrial activities has undeniably engendered this carnage. In October 2000, a giant coal sludge spill dumped more than 300 million gallons of toxic waste—including heavy metals like arsenic and mercury—into the county’s river system, which is also its main source of drinking water. It’s communities akin to these who feel the effects of a changing climate that the current administration continues to deny.
This arises the question of why government officials continue to deny that the climate is changing due to anthropogenic activities, even with undeniable qualitative and quantitative scientific research on the topic. The conclusion most come to is the need for hegemony and profit.
Corporations that create pollution make an enormous amount of money from production and disposal. The mining and burning of fossil fuels is incredibly profitable and advantageous for them. Additionally, these corporations make a profit from the disposal of their production, through the recycling process. These companies do not have to deal with the consequences of what they produce; the people they have colonized and have continued to oppress for centuries are forced to deal with their actions.
The majority of the contemporary environmental activism community is white-washed. Oftentimes, vulnerable communities are not acknowledged in the discussion of climate change. All people who are not affected by environmental racism benefit from it. Everyone needs to be aware of this, and take action to mitigate climate change effects while also supporting those who have felt the brunt of these effects.
If you have the means, you should help the people of Flint either through monetary donations or time donations. Learn more on how to help here: https://www.cityofflint.com/how-can-i-help
Another way to help is supporting the Pine Ridge reservation, which has been devastated by floods due to our changing climate. Learn more on how to help here: https://friendsofpineridgereservation.org/make-a-difference/
Internationally, developing countries have been ravaged by war (backed by US interests) and have felt the effects of climate change considerably more than developed countries. Learn more on how to help in this area here: https://www.rescue.org