The environmental side of racism

Racism can take many forms — the ugliest and most overt of which was exemplified by George Floyd’s death and it doesn’t end there. Racial injustices exist in the public health and environmental spheres.

According to the CDC, a variety of factors that contribute to institutionalized racism are: densely populated housing, neighborhoods being further from grocery stores and medical facilities (making it harder to receive care if sick and stock up on supplies that would allow them to stay home); income-related multi-generational households (where elderly can’t practice social distancing)’ and lower rates of health insurance and paid sick leave which contribute to higher mortality rates. With COVID-19, the mortality rate among blacks is more than double that of whites. 

Minority groups also make up a disproportionately high fraction of “critical industry” jobs in the agricultural, nursing, and food services sectors, which have continued to operate through the pandemic. Black and Latino Americans are overrepresented in prisons and detention centers where COVID-19-related risk is higher due to shared food services and living quarters.

In my field of environmental science, there’s a topic known as “environmental justice,” or EJ, where research has consistently shown communities of color and low income to be disproportionately exposed to toxic levels of pollution. Such research burgeoned after a famous 1987 study showed “race” to be the most significant predictor of where hazardous waste facilities were located throughout the U.S. Examples of this were rampant. 

In California, all three Level-1 hazardous waste facilities were located in communities that were over two-thirds African American and/or Latino. In contrast, the nation’s largest hazardous waste facility was located in a 95 percent African-American community in Alabama. 

Yet, it didn’t take academic publications to spur communities to action. Five years earlier, residents in a predominantly African-American community in Warren County, North Carolina, decided enough was enough and took to the streets to block an incoming line of trucks carrying highly toxic PCBs to a newly created hazardous waste landfill in town. While the protest didn’t succeed in staving off the waste, it was a catalyzing moment that launched the modern EJ movement, inspiring numerous other victims of so-called environmental racism to take a stand for their communities’ health and safety. 

One such community was Kettleman, Calif., wherein 1988 residents successfully fought back after the company Chemical Waste Management attempted to build a toxic waste incinerator. Comprised 95 percent of Latino residents, 40 percent of whom spoke no English, the site placement was all too similar to the company’s other three U.S. hazardous waste incinerators, each located in communities with over 80 percent African-American and Latino residents. 

If there was any question as to the causative nature of such racial patterning, the so-called Cerrell Report laid them to rest. Commissioned in 1984 by the California Waste Management Board, an LA-based consulting firm published an analysis that unambiguously identified the types of communities that would pose the least resistance to the siting of waste incinerator facilities. Rural, low-income communities with a high school education or less, were deemed “least likely to resist,”. In contrast, college-educated, professional communities in mid-to-upper income areas were labeled “most likely to resist.” While the report didn’t mention race, it took only a shred of added insight to know that the poverty rate among African-Americans was over three times that of whites, with a college graduation rate of about half that of whites. The story was similar to other minority groups. Sadly, little has changed today. 

Beyond dirty industry, one study found that if you’re African American, then you’re about three times more likely to live in a high-traffic area and breathe harmful vehicle-related air pollution than if you’re white. 

As for water quality, one hardly needs reminding of the recent lead-related contamination plagued low-income, African-American residents’ drinking water in Flint, Michigan, or the Native Americans who rallied in vain to oppose the Dakota Access Pipeline which threatened their water supply at Standing Rock.

Even in the wake of major natural disasters, ostensible racism emerges as communities of color draw in fewer federal resources and experience worse recovery efforts. Just ask Hurricane Katrina survivors in New Orleans where thousands remained homeless over three years later and where levee reconstruction maps closely correlated with race — with white, affluent communities receiving up to five feet higher flood protection. 

As climate change now poses a growing threat, EJ issues only stand to mount. In Miami, higher elevation areas that house low-income communities of color are undergoing “climate gentrification” as developers plan for sea-level rise. Miami’s Little Hattie is one example where locals are already being forced out.

In the early 1990s, progress on EJ issues was ostensibly made with the creation of the federal Office of Environmental Justice and later signed by President Clinton of the Environmental Justice Executive Order. Yet meager funding and minimal attention have led many to question the efficacy of such measures. 

As minority groups disproportionately bear the brunt of hazardous physical and chemical exposures, communities are rightfully growing frustrated. It’s a frustration that is finding its voice on the streets this month as protesters march in solidarity with George Floyd. 

Elected officials at the local, state and federal levels must hear these voices and take long overdue, systemic action to eliminate racial discrimination and help disadvantaged communities overcome the institutional obstacles that prevent environmental health, safety, and civil rights from being realized equally across the nation. 

Shahir Masri, Sc.D., is the author of “Beyond Debate: Answers to 50 Misconceptions on Climate Change.” He is an air pollution scientist at the University of California at Irvine, and also teaches at the Schmid College of Science and Technology at Chapman University. Follow him on Twitter at @ShahirMasri.

Tags Environmental justice Environmental racism Hazardous waste Natural environment Nature Toxic waste Waste management
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