In 2016 I was writing my university dissertation on the history of environmental racism in America. I had never come across the term ‘environmental racism’ until it was highlighted in a documentary that I had watched earlier that year. I was shocked to discover how minority and ethnic communities were disproportionately burdened with societies’ environmental hazards, and the extent of this systemic issue. Doctor Benjamin Chavis, a civil rights activist, coined the term ‘environmental racism’ in 1981, which he defined as: “racial discrimination in environmental policy-making and enforcement of regulation and laws, the deliberate targeting of communities of colour for toxic waste facilities and the official sanctioning of the presence of life-threatening poisons and pollutants for communities of colour”.
What emerged from my research was undeniable evidence of environmental injustice and minority communities blighted by preventable, yet fatal illnesses. A report highlighted the excessive presence of hazardous wastes in non-white communities across America. It found that race was “consistently a more prominent factor in the location of commercial hazardous waste facilities”. For example, Scotlandville, Louisiana, had the nation’s fourth largest landfill and was made up of 93% African Americans. Also, three predominately African American communities alone were burdened with 40% of the total estimated landfill capacity across America. Ethnic and minority communities were consistently living in the closest proximity to hazardous waste sites, which was shown to increase the probability of birth defects by 32%, and the risks of developing soft-tissue sarcomas by 700%.
Coincidentally, whilst working on my dissertation, the Flint water crisis was unfolding. On 14th January 2016, President Obama declared a federal state of emergency in Flint, Michigan, confirming its water supplies were harming and endangering the safety of residents. A decision in April 2014 to change to the water supply to the town, resulted in exposing residents to drinking water that was contaminated with lead. Chronic lead poisoning can cause many health problems including elevated blood pressure, anaemia, kidney failure and cognitive impairment. Many have drawn close links to Flint’s environmental health threat to the racial and socio-economic backgrounds of its predominantly Black community. Aaron Mair, the first African American and current President of the Sierra Club, stated that the people of Flint are “too poor, and had the wrong complexion for protection”. This was a clear and recent example of environmental injustice, awakening myself to the unquestionable reality that this was still to this day an issue.
Four years later, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, I find myself reflecting on this piece of work and am disappointed and hurt that this continues to be a prevalent issue in our society. For those that may question this, or are unaware, cases of environmental injustice are still faced by many around the world. For example, a recent documentary on Netflix, There’s Something In the Water, highlighted a number of black and indigenous communities in Nova Scotia, Canada, that are still having to fight for their basic rights of breathing clean air and drinking clean water, and are still subjected to bearing the heaviest burden of environmentally hazardous sites compared to the rest of the region.
Closer to home, research by the Mayor of London found that people living in parts of London with high proportions of black, mixed or other ethnic groups are disproportionately affected by air pollution compared to those in areas with a high proportion of white people. This has been linked to increased cases of asthma and other health conditions within these communities. For those interested in reading more about environmental racism, I found this article really eye-opening.
Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in 1963 that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. This quote feels extremely poignant for me at this time of reflection. We know that our environment plays a key role in our health, and future generations’ health, so it is our duty to protect it, fight for change, and make a difference. But we must also actively fight for environmental justice and put an end to environmental racism. Individuals, businesses and governments can longer ignore these issues.
At The Planet Mark, we are in the business of positively changing the world. We are committed to educating ourselves, our community and beyond, and helping fix systems that lead to racism and social injustice.
To learn more about our commitments, and how we are helping others, read our open letter here. Together, we will make a world of difference.
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