We cannot view environmental justice without talking about the widespread practice of environmental racism. The complex nature of the relationship between our natural resources and conflict has at its roots the issues of human rights and the dominance of one race over another.
Environmental racism crops up when one community suffers disproportionate environmental burdens while another enjoys its ill-gotten fruits. The majority on the planet have never enjoyed a fair share of the environmental benefits. And they also happen to be the section that has done the least harm to it, and also had to suffer the most from environmental degradation across the planet.
We appreciate the environment as a natural force that is equal when it comes to its treatment of humans. But like all the richness that this planet has to offer, the environmental riches too are subjected to human disparity and inconsistent influences. And such disparity influences ultimately lead to the worst ills of human society, which include classism, casteism, and racism. It ultimately creates environmental racism.
Though the term was coined by Dr. Benjamin Chaavis, environmental racism found its comprehensive definition in the book by Robert Bullard Dumping in Dixie.
Environmental racism is the act of burdening minority groups with areas with a disproportionately high number of environmental hazards. These hazards include toxic waste and garbage dumps, as also various sources of environmental pollution that severely affect the quality of life. These areas are populated primarily by colored people and members of low-socioeconomic backgrounds.
Even as the fight against climate change intensifies, these communities face the worst of such environmental degradation and are disproportionately affected. The disparity relies on racial and power dynamics and takes multiple forms.
Environmental racism takes multiple forms and while some get attention due to its wide publicity, such as a water crisis in a black neighborhood, many other forms are hidden away and do not come to be recognized as environmental racism; for instance, the disproportionate incidents of heat deaths.
Hiding Environmental Racism In The Garb Of Industrial Growth
In a desperate attempt to improve the economic condition of the backward communities comprising most blacks, politicians, and civil rights advocates directed their energies towards ensuring immediate jobs for the communities. This led to the introduction of industries with lax pollution standards and environmental regulations.
Enforcement administrations were forced to look the other way even as environmental risks were offered as an unavoidable trade-off for immediate jobs.
Such communities were the home-ground for industries that had a long history of pollution violations. The black community especially came to be viewed as people who lacked environmental consciousness, and community organization and were strongly for pro-business politics.
This strong pro-job stance, which led to the ‘do not bite the hand that feeds you’ sentiment, made it a fertile ground for environmental racism.
The southern economy of America has been largely shaped by the excessive economic boost that turned a blind eye to the enforcement of environmental regulations. A prime example was the transformation of the Mississippi River from a life-giver to a deadly mix of sewage, industrial waste, and insecticides.
The polluting industry exploited the sentiment of the pro-job and pro-growth poor, working-class predominantly black communities. Industries such as waste disposal, treatment facilities, paper mills, and chemical plants flourished and gave rise to environmental racism.
Environmental Racism Sent In The Deadly Impact Of Rising City Heat
Extreme heat is a growing problem in cities and towns across the US. As heat waves become more intense and more widespread with rising average temperatures, people in urban areas are at the risk most. The use of concrete, asphalt and other surfaces that absorb and exit heat makes many urban environments unbearably hot during the summer.
And environmental racism, rampant in the US, has left colored communities at higher risk of heat-related deaths and illness than their white counterparts.
While urban neighborhoods benefit from spacious green expanses such as parks, lawns, and dense tree cover, black residents are left baking in vast expanses of concrete and asphalt. And the patterns are too pervasive and consistent to be ignored and passed off as isolated incidents.
Environmental racism is visible in the way people are exposed to life-threatening heat. The black has mostly been forced into parts of towns and cities that have the maximum heat stress.
The Racist American Policy Of Redlining Colored Neighborhoods
Climate scientist Angel Hsu made detailed studies of urban heat using satellite measurements and was stunned by the utter magnitude of the variance. In 97% of American cities, colored communities were knowingly exposed to higher temperatures.
It was blatant, pervasive, widespread, and systemic evidence of unending environmental racism in the matter of exposure to urban heat islands. While people in poverty-stricken regions are exposed to high temperatures, race remains the defining factor in US urban areas.
Even though America abolished slavery back in 1865, national housing policies were framed to exclude colored people from living in greener areas. A policy of ‘redlining’ neighborhoods with a high proportion of ethnic groups and immigrants has racist connotations. This led to decisions that deliberately restricted access to measures that could have improved these areas. Over the years, these areas were allowed to degenerate and these practices of segregation are allowed to exist even today.
Toxic Waste Dumping Has Shades Of Environmental Racism
A landmark study in 2007 by academic Dr. Robert Bullard, regarded as the father of environmental justice, found that race was the most important factor than socio-economic status, which led to the decision to lactate a nation’s commercial hazardous waste facilities.
Dr. Bullard proved that Black children in America were 5 times more likely to have lead poisoning from waste dumping than Caucasian children and Black families earning $50-60,000 a year were more likely to live in polluted areas than their white counterparts making $10,000.
In the UK too, black children were found to have been exposed to 30% more air pollution than their white counterparts.
One of the most blatant instances of environmental racism was the case of Flint, Michigan. The water source of the city was changed to the Flint River in 2014, but adequate treatment of the water was never done. As a result, the predominantly black community was exposed to dangerous levels of lead present in the river, and deaths and diseases did not move the authorities for years.
Only sustained community pressure backed by civil rights groups finally forced the city to reconnect to the earlier source of water and admit to wrongdoing. The civil rights commission of Michigan concluded that the whole issue was due to systemic racism by the authorities.
In other instances, the instance of environmental racism was deliberate. Native American communities in Navajo, New Mexico were deliberately exposed to large doses of radioactive radiation as part of a massive medical experiment.