Article by Shrima
Edited by Madeleine and Audrey
Every part of the environment, from the water you drink to the air you breathe, is controlled by people in some way. In fact, this is exactly why certain minority groups have faced disproportionate rates of environmental harm for decades.
What is Environmental Racism?
Environmental racism refers to the environmental policies or decisions that result in racism of any form. More specifically, it’s when harmful environmental conditions disproportionately affect racial or ethnic minorities and their communities. These conditions include, but are not limited to, the construction of hazardous waste facilities in low-income, minority communities, the neglect of old pipelines that contaminate drinking water, and the dumping of toxic chemicals in rivers.
Environmental racism has been incorporated into the lives of Black Americans through generations of discrimination. From the very founding of the United States, enslaved Black people were constantly exposed to environmental risks such as the heat, mosquitoes, and malaria—conditions which most white slave owners didn’t want to tolerate. As a result, the white policymakers of the Jim Crow era believed in the racist concept that Black people could tolerate such conditions better, so they placed environmental hazards in communities of color. These decisions also demonstrate how environmental racism intertwines with many other discriminatory practices, such as redlining, which involves denying loans to certain geographic areas with high percentages of minority residents.
The Flint Water Crisis
One of the most well-known instances of environmental racism was the Flint Water Crisis. It began in 2014, when the city of Flint, Michigan changed its drinking water supply to the Flint River, which had already been a waste-dumping location for more than a century. Due to a lack of proper water treatment, lead-contaminated drinking water was being piped into the homes of Flint residents. Regardless of a multitude of complaints from residents, as well as cases of high blood lead levels in children, the government failed to properly respond. Once the media began covering the crisis, many pointed out that Flint’s population is predominantly Black. State-established bodies, including the Michigan Civil Rights Commission “concluded that the poor governmental response to the Flint crisis was a result of systemic racism” (Natural Resources Defense Council).
Environmental Racism Today
In the 1980s, the environmental justice movement was established by individuals wanting to bring attention to the environmental inequities minority communities face. These activists continue to advocate for equal access to healthy, clean environments to live and work in, and are pushing for protection from environmental and health hazards. Additionally, in 2015, the American Public Health Association launched the National Campaign Against Racism to address disproportionate environmental risk associated with systemic racism. Despite such efforts, environmental racism continues to affect countless minorities.
The COVID-19 pandemic has especially highlighted these struggles: demographic data clearly shows that racial and ethnic minorities have been hit especially hard by the crisis. This can be attributed to environmental racism, which has led to poor health conditions among numerous Black Americans. Over a half of people living close to hazardous waste are people of color, and “those who live in predominantly Black or African American communities suffered greater risk of premature death from particle pollution than those who live in communities that are predominately white” (American Lung Association). Moreover, these disadvantaged groups often face challenges in accessing the healthcare they need to stay healthy and receive proper medical treatment. The issues environmental racism has created for minorities has also been evident during several other crises such as natural disasters, where impoverished minority communities may encounter more difficulties with recovery than their richer, privileged counterparts would. As a result of these various institutions and policies, racial minorities continue to face these disproportionate rates of environmental harm they have suffered for generations.