Environmental Racism: Cities Where Children Only Know of Black Waters and Skies

The United States

We, humans, define a place as a landscape composed of meaningful elements such as human inhabitants, sacred relevance, fertile arable lands, or nourishment. Space, on the other hand, is something abstract and empty. However, it is the eyes of the affluent who make this distinction. More often than not, said ‘spaces’ are not empty but occupied by economically weaker sections of society who do not have much say in the dealings of the property occupied by them. In this article, we will be looking into the repercussions of such one-sided decision making.  

The United States constitutes most of the world’s Global North, a term used to define countries that are differentiated from the rest by virtue of their financial strength, technological advancements, and political stability. While some enjoy their American Dream, the others face the consequences of such dreams. This phenomenon transcends to every socio-economic issue and, naturally, to the environment as well. Therefore, the burden of environmental damage also hits some groups more than the rest. This can be illustrated through Environmental Racism.

What is Environmental Racism?  

Environmental Racism (coined by Benjamin Chavis) is a term used to define the severe indirect consequences of ecological exploitation and pollution on persons of colour or marginalised communities. The ghettoization of people of colour often results in shared residences and accumulation in specific states’ specific regions. Systematic Racism runs deep in such oppressive power structures that put minority communities–black, brown, and poor communities–close to factories, landfills, garbage dumps, mining deposits, and gas operations exposing these people to toxic wastes and unfiltered water. This takes a massive toll on these communities’ health facilities, putting them at significant health risks. The more affluent, white population, on the other hand, is able to secure safe havens away from such toxicity by virtue of their race and all the benefits that come with it. 

This can be illustrated in the geography of Cancer Alley in Louisiana. Cancer Alley houses a cluster of Petrochemical plants, among other sources of pollution. These areas intersect directly with Black communities stretching across Baton Rouge to New Orleans. This patch extends to Zip Code 48217 [Wayne County, Michigan], which is considered the most polluted zip code among all of the 42,000 in the United States. This area, too, is situated in the centre of an age-old Black community. Additionally, even the Houston suburb of Manchester is located close to a refinery and attacks a mostly Latino neighbourhood.

The History of Environmental Racism 

In June of 1983, after a failed protest against the construction of a chemical landfill, a study was conducted which stated that 75% of all hazardous landfills were located in areas where African Americans made up a quarter of the population, their incomes well below the poverty line. This led to another investigation by the UCC (United Church of Christ) Commission for Racial Justice, in attempts to examine the relationship between waste sites and the demographic composition of the host community. The research found that millions of racial minorities resided in regions with at the least one disused toxic waste site. The Congressional Black Caucus, a society of African American members of the United States Congress, met with officials of environmental protection to address newfound issues of minority and low-income populations being more at risk to environmental causes. By that time the IEN (Indigenous Environmental Network) and WE ACT (West Harlem Environmental Action) organisations were formed to make societies vocal about environmental equity and advise indigenous people regarding solutions to protect their sacred land and other natural resources. The IEN specifically strived for such communities to build economically and ecologically sustainable communities. In 1991, October, racial groups of Native Americans to Latinos and Asian Pacific delegates attended the First National People of Colour Environmental Leadership Summit, held in Washington D.C. A guide was then adopted, on both national and international levels, defining the multiple principles of Environmental Justice. This document further officially stated that such PoC were oppressed environmentally through ghettoization and called for universal prevention from having their land treated as dumping or testing yards for the more affluent. 

Come late 1992, the Office of Environmental Equity, later Environmental Justice (OEJ), was formed and a federal advisory council was appointed to the office, to hold public meetings on issues of environmental justice all over the country.

The OEJ directed policy and decision making in favour of persons of colour and formulated programs providing financial assistance to small organisations and non-profits that are working with communities facing environmental injustice. It promised environmental justice indiscriminately by composing the National Environmental Policy Act and integrated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act which endorses for promiscuous action in all programs or activities with federal financial assistance.

However, over the past few years, with the election of former President Donald Trump, corporate businesses started to take advantage, yet again. Withdrawal of strict policies, a list of which can be found here, placed during Obama’s presidency allowed agencies to espouse defunding of grant programs and exploitation of public health. 

Capitalism and Injustices 

The treatment of states and regions as testing grounds for the wealthy can be realised from their opinion about New Mexico. The prosperous Euro-Americans with colonial mindsets saw New Mexico of the 19th century, as “an uninhabited barren wasteland”; and claimed that with their presence and subsequent utilization of the resources there, the region would reach its “true potential,” as per Myrriah Gomez, Assistant Professor at the University of Mexico. Reaching this true potential, according to them, was through building a nuclear waste plant. New Mexico, at the time, was predominantly inhabited by Hispanics, Natives, and African Americans. 

A prime example of the Manhattan Project can be cited here. New Mexico was not the ideal location, rather, it was Oak City, Utah. However, displacing the lives of indigenous and Mexican people trumped over the choice to displace multiple racially privileged families. Consequently, the aforementioned minorities had to relocate from the Pajarito Plateau of Los Alamos. 

This treatment of New Mexico doesn’t end in the past.

At the present, Holtec International is looking to build a nuclear waste facility in New Mexico. A large population of New Mexico, especially those for whom the facility would be a considerable inconvenience, don’t have the privilege of broadband or even mobile phones. With the ban for meetings in person, due to the pandemic, the agency shifted to holding these meetings online and silenced the opposers in this way. The fact that such capitalist-driven companies are rushing for hazardous facilities, in the middle of an ongoing crisis, which drastically affects the poor, show their sheer indifference towards such communities. It also shows how they will take any opportunity that comes in hand to gain profit, oppressing the already disadvantaged. Environmental Racism isn’t just the consequences of a specific building or event or breakout. Rather it is not giving all persons equal opportunity to be aware and, if they wish to, oppose the said project or activity.  

How will the Executive Order by Biden impact the current situation? 

The Biden administration promises that 40% of the gains derived from federal investments in clean energy and water would be directed towards the communities exposed to environmental Racism. In addition, he also established a White House council on environmental justice. Further, Biden has nominated Michael Regan as the first Black man to lead the Environmental Protection Agency.  While this pledge is still being met with scepticism, at least it ignites hope for a better future. This prods the question, as the United States moves a step closer to demolishing its environmental evils, will it actually change things for the better?

Noor Sharma (UG ’23) is an incoming freshwoman at Ashoka University. She is interested in exploring topics within the intersection of economics and behavioral science.

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