A Response to Environmental Racism

Flint lacks clean drinking water; East St. Louis Public Housing has lead paint; Houston’s Harrisburg/Manchester neighborhood does not have breathable air. While these environmental issues appear different on the surface, the harms created are all concentrated in communities of color. As issues of climate and environment take center stage, it is essential that the fight for environmental justice includes all voices, especially those that are being systematically oppressed through their environment.

Most have likely heard about the racist practices in areas like schooling, housing and the workforce, but the term “environmental racism” is still new to many. First coined by Dr. Benjamin Chavis in the early 1980s, environmental racism refers to “systematic oppression through the disproportionate environmental hazards placed near or upon communities of color”. The Flint water crisis is one example, but this harm occurs nationally in such nuanced ways it is often unnoticed.

The effects of one’s environment on their physical, mental and even economic health begin from a young age. For example, the toxins in the air that one breathes while pregnant are passed to the child, and when that child is born, more pollutants are taken in through various acts of daily life (e.g., drinking, cooking, bathing). These undue burdens are typically ignored by legislators and activists when discussing environmental issues that are inherently racist because their effects occur in communities that have already been marginalized and plagued by other systemic factors that maintain our society’s oppressive hierarchy and strip these communities of their voices.

Additionally, we are living in a time in which neighborhoods are segregated predominantly by race due to a gamut of systemic and institutional factors. This de facto segregation places predominantly white neighborhoods in “good” parts of town, while on the adverse side, placing neighborhoods comprised of people of color near areas inundated with environmental hazards. This is the case with cities such as East St. Louis, where toxic corporations, such as Monsanto, are located on the perimeter of communities of color that become dumping grounds for the toxic waste produced by these corporations. Not only do these actions have negative impacts on the local housing economy, which further maintains an oppressive system, but more importantly, they have harmful ramifications on the overall health of every individual living or born in these communities. 

While not all areas shoulder that same issue, we do see, on average, that landfills and areas of waste management are located near or around low-income communities across the country. The physical location of where our nation puts its waste not only speaks to the broader notion of what our nation sees as expendable but also disproportionately places negative health consequences on marginalized communities. Those living near waste management facilities often have higher rates of asthma, low birth weights, heart attacks, and a host of other health complications as a result of consistently breathing in polluted air, as noted by the Environmental Protection Agency

Although most media outlets center conversations of environmental racism around post-industrial cities like Detroit or Baltimore, that does not mean that rural and agrarian communities are exceptions.Here in Arkansas, environmental racism works hand in hand with our capitalist economy to enable massive corporations, such as Tyson, to profit off the labor of Arkansans while also pumping toxins into the communities in which they live. In 2017, many environmental groups found harmful chemicals in the drinking water of certain communities of Northwest Arkansas. These groups asserted that a large sum of these chemicals could be linked to the practices of Tyson contract farmers and slaughterhouses. However, as of July 2019, the Arkansas Pollution Control and Ecology Commission voted to adopt looser standards for the amount of certain minerals allowed in waste, as petitioned by Tyson. While this is a blanket environmental issue, when one factors in the large Latinx population that lives in Northwest Arkansas, it becomes apparent that these harmful chemicals are disproportionately affecting communities of color in our state.

While great strides have been made to address issues of climate and environmental injustice, it is necessary that we ensure our justice work is inclusive of all. If we fail to see and acknowledge the way that environmental issues are racially stratified across our country we will never be able to effectively bring about change and stability.

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