By Sara Radin
In 2018, three children and one young adult died from cancer and other illnesses in St. John The Baptist Parish, Louisiana, linked to emissions from the LaPlace chemical plant. In Flint, Michigan, the mostly Black community has been drinking poisonous water containing lead since 2014, when the city changed the drinking water supply from Detroit’s system to the Flint River in effort to save money. The issue, which is still ongoing, has since “officially” caused 12 deaths, and many more sick children and adults. And at Standing Rock, indigenous people are fighting for water protection land sovereignty against harmful oil spills as a result of the North Dakota Access Pipeline.
Each of these communities have been massively affected by environmental racism, a widespread crisis that impacts marginalized people living in lower-income areas across the country. A scientific study published on March 11, 2019 in the journal PNAS, revealed a grim, albeit not shocking, reality about “pollution inequity”: Air pollution is disproportionately caused by the mass consumption done by white Americans, yet it is unduly inhaled by black and Latinx Americans.
The study found racial-ethnic disparities in the origin and effect of exposure to fine particulate matter, revealing that non-Hispanic white people experience a “pollution advantage” in which, “they experience [approximately] 17 percent less air pollution exposure than is caused by their consumption.” This is in stark contrast to the numbers for Black and Latinx people, which on average bear a “pollution burden” of 56 percent and 63 percent excess exposure, respectively, which is relative to the exposure caused by their own consumption.
While the vicious impact of air pollution on specifically lower-income, mostly Brown and Black communities has been detailed by several scientific studies, Anjum Hajat, an epidemiologist at the University Washington, pointed out to NPR that this is the first one to quantify a direct correlation between white consumption and the impacts of their air pollution on marginalized people. Moreover, Hajat posed a crucial question: “If you’re contributing less to the problem, why do you have to suffer more from it?”
This is a critical yet common critique among activists who have long argued environmental issues disproportionately impact the lives of marginalized people, thanks in part to outdated, colonial, white supremacist ideas.
“I would argue that in America this issue goes all the way back to the nation’s founding,” Mia Eastman, an active member of Earth Guardians, a youth empowerment organization working to defend the planet, tells MTV News. “This country was built by white people for white people; of course environmental racism was going to be a byproduct.”
The 18-year-old activist cites the 1982 Warren County protests against the illegal dumping of soil contaminated with harmful chemicals called PCB (polychlorinated biphenyls) which have been linked to cancer, as the birth of the national environmental justice movement. According to the New York Times, the landfill affected residents in Afton, North Carolina — a small town where more than 64 percent of the community was Black; protestors argued that the dump could contaminate the local water supply, and that dumping the polluted soil there was “racially motivated.” Benjamin Chavis, an African-American civil rights leader, later coined the term “environmental racism” to describe the ways in which the government and corporations perpetrated institutionalized racism at a natural resource level.
According to Lauren Ornelas, the founder and executive director of the Food Empowerment Project, environmental racism occurs when communities of color are impacted by negative pollutants. “This could be from toxic dumps, oil refineries, or farms that raise animals for food,” she tells MTV News. “But I would say it also impacts people in terms of their environment, with some communities lacking things such as roads, sidewalks, and access to healthy foods.”
Privilege and racism have always played a part in this country’s history and policy. In fact, the relationship between the environment and racism is extremely intertwined. Celine Semaan, an advocate and the founder of a sustainable conference series called The Library Study Hall, also cites the ways in which nature has been treated as “a resource waiting to be conquered and exploited for the (white) man’s benefit.”
The biggest culprits of environmental racism, according to Eastman, are capitalist corporations, the government, and people with “unchecked privilege” who take advantage of society’s most vulnerable. As countless manmade environmental disasters have proven to us, big corporations tend to put profit before basic human needs such as safe drinking water, healthy soil for growing food, and good air quality. Brandie Alexander, an activist who often gives talks about environmental racism from an indigenous perspective, says this is “an injustice people of color face due to industrialization — profit over people,” especially given that minority groups and specifically Black and Brown people are more likely to be working class, lower-income or unemployed, and are also more likely to suffer from a lack of affordable housing and housing discrimination.
It leads to a vicious and often inescapable cycle: “Without housing, many [of these individuals] return to areas that are not safe due to industrial plant pollution, water contamination by lead, and animal agriculture run off of urine and feces,” Alexander points out.
The health issues that people often experience as a result of environmental racism can also compound upon other health issues; when individuals live in close proximity to air pollution, it can gravely impact their health, worsening or causing a range of respiratory problems, cancer, and other serious issues. For example, in 2018 a study by Boston University revealed that air full of smog can impact one’s reproductive endocrine system, causing teen girls to have irregular periods. Researchers at the University of Southern California found that higher levels of air pollution could cause inflammation in adolescent brains, leading to an increase in instances of teen delinquency.
For people who live in these affected communities and are incensed by this disparity, the avenues to fight back are limited; these individuals often don’t readily have access to lawyers capable of taking on the big businesses poisoning their water, soil, or air. “Those who have the most money have the power to control what laws are made,” Alexander says. “Since these companies pay lobbyists to protect their dangerous practices, there are very relaxed federal protections.” In Alexander’s view, white people are simply disinterested in the environments of communities where people of color live and raise their families. “It’s out of sight, out of mind,” she says.
“Climate change is racist because this world is racist,” Semaan adds. “Race and the environment are interlinked issues and this must be addressed in a holistic way, by looking at colonialism and its impact across countries, not only through the American lens.”
While the environmental justice movement is building greater momentum, Eastman says it’s crucial to remember to amplify the voices affected by environmental racism. “More indigenous, Black, Latinx, Asian, and Pacific Islander voices must be heard and allowed the space to lead,” she says.
And as members of Generation Z like Eastman come of age, they can play a bigger role in creating a more equitable and environmentally-sound future. Young people can donate their time, money, and votes to organizations, activists, and politicians committed to combatting environmental racism and approaching the issue intersectionally.
“We can continue taking to the streets, training the youth on how to be more impactful leaders, speaking to our local government officials, and running for office ourselves,” Eastman proclaims. “We are taking back the power.”
This story has been updated to attribute quotes to Lauren Ornelas, the founder and executive director of Food Empowerment Project.