From the extreme heat waves in the summer to the record-breaking winter storms that shut down a major portion of the United States, climate change is as present as ever—and continues to worsen with time. While there are ways to address global warming, such as using renewable energy sources, these sustainability efforts sometimes forget to account for the communities that are disproportionately affected by climate change.
Communities of color and low socioeconomic status are often situated in living areas that are burdened by biohazards, such as toxic wastes, garbage dumps and other environmental pollutants. These factors result in a lower quality of life amongst these communities, as well as a plethora of health problems including but not limited to asthma, diabetes and cancer. This phenomenon was appropriately coined “environmental racism,” defined by Greenaction as “the institutional rules, regulations, policies or government and/or corporate decisions that deliberately target certain communities for locally undesirable land uses and lax enforcement of zoning and environmental laws, resulting in communities being disproportionately exposed to toxic and hazardous waste based upon race.”
Environmental racism is the result of systematic racism penetrating through the intersection of policy, health and sustainability. It is the result of poorly executed environmental policies, which are often decided by rich, white congressmen. Essentially, when it comes to deciding where to dump toxic waste, most people would not want toxic waste near them or their residences. Wealthier communities, further, are able to lobby policymakers to create laws that make it okay to dump toxic waste away from them and into minority communities, seeing as systematically oppressed groups have less of a “say” in a predominantly white political climate.
One of the most infamous, ongoing examples of environmental racism is the Flint, Michigan water crisis. Many local industries in Flint use the Flint River as a dumping ground for toxic waste and raw sewage. As a result, the water from the river was extremely corrosive and high in lead content. The citizens of Flint—who are predominantly Black—would get treated water from Detroit, until 2013, when the governor decided to “temporarily” pump water from the Flint river to its residents as a cheaper alternative. Again, this water was extremely toxic and corrosive, and officials failed to treat this water appropriately, leading to high levels of lead contamination still present in this water.
Flint residents complained about the taste, smell and overall quality of the water, but their concerns were dismissed by officials. On a positive note, while the Environmental Protection Agency and other government officials failed to act on this, Flint residents took control of their situation by suing the city and organizing grassroots movements.
Flint is just one example of environmental racism. We see environmental racism and injustice present in our daily lives. With Texas facing the ongoing winter storms, low income and minority communities are disproportionately affected by the snow, suffering from power outages, no running water or heat. This is why we must work towards environmental justice in addition to sustainability.
Greenaction states that environmental justice “mandates the right to ethical, balanced and responsible uses of land and renewable resources in the interest of a sustainable planet for humans and other living things” and “calls for universal protection from nuclear testing, extraction, production and disposal of toxic/hazardous wastes and poisons and nuclear testing that threaten the fundamental right to clean air, land, water, and food.” Striving to create a more environmentally just society would benefit all communities, regardless of color or socioeconomic status.
Solving environmental racism does not involve a simple or overnight solution. This situation is the result of generational racism, power imbalance and disparities in health. However, just like the residents of Flint, we can fight for equality in policy by engaging in grassroots movements and public activism to pressure our lawmakers into deciding fair policies for all their constituents.