Environmental racism refers to the ways in which people of color are often subject to a disproportionate number of environmental hazards.
Rabat – The United Nations designated June 5 as World Environment Day in 1972. Since then, campaigns to encourage awareness and action toward protecting the environment have marked annual thematic celebrations. 2020 may be an ideal opportunity to place the focus on environmental racism.
This year, the UN has called attention to biodiversity, a topic relevant to the underlying and systemic problems that scientists say lead to viral diseases such as COVID-19. However, as people worldwide take to the streets to protest racism under the umbrella of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, it may be equally pertinent to raise the volume on the discriminatory environmental policies and practices that continue to disproportionately affect people of color.
Environmental racism refers to the ways in which people of color are often subject to disproportionate harm from environmental hazards. Decades of research has proven that race is a leading indicator in determining risk surrounding environmental health.
A recent interview with environmental health scientist Sacoby Wilson, published in the Yale Environment 360 magazine, affirms the ways that environmental issues connect to a wide range of public health and larger societal issues.
Wilson discusses a recent Harvard study that shows a correlation with long-term exposure to fine particulate air pollution and higher mortality rates for individuals who had a COVID-19 infection.“We have a pattern in this country (the US), where communities of color and low-income communities host more of these [heavily polluting] land uses,” says Wilson.
Wilson goes on to explain that environmental regulations in the US are “not color blind” and that white, higher-income communities hold stronger political power due to their economic advantage.
The case study of Flint, Michigan
In the United States, race is the strongest indicator of access to clean water and sanitation facilities. DigDeep, a human rights non-profit organization focused on water issues, states that Latino and African American households are twice as likely as white households to lack access to clean water and indoor plumbing, while Native Americans are 19 times more likely to lack access.
The city of Flint, Michigan in the United States is considered a “textbook case” of environmental racism and injustice. Flint’s population is 57% Black, with nearly half of the city’s total population living below the state poverty line.
In 2014, city officials decided to cut costs by switching Flint’s drinking water supply from a well-treated system to the Flint River, an unofficial waste disposal site for surrounding industries and raw sewage. The city’s inadequate water testing and treatment practices resulted in foul-smelling, discolored, lead-polluted, and chemically-contaminated water being pumped into the homes of more than 100,000 people. Many experienced skin rashes, hair loss, sickness, and a number of people died from the toxic pollution.
In Michigan, as well as other parts of the US, authorities have been caught deliberately distorting water tests to make levels of lead appear lower. Civil rights groups have deemed the water crisis another example of systemic racism.
“Not In My Backyard”
The phrase “Not In My Backyard” is used to describe resistance of communities to allowing toxic or “unsightly” facilities and land use in their neighborhoods or immediate surroundings. Meanwhile, it often insinuates an attitude of acceptance toward allowing environmentally and socially harmful activities in other locations.
Wealthy countries have long sought cheap and simple solutions to ridding their lands of the waste they produce. For decades, North American or European countries have been shipping their “recyclables” overseas, claiming they are providing a valuable source of income for “developing countries.”
While some countries are able to benefit from some amount of recycled goods, an overwhelming quantity of discarded plastics exported to countries in Asia and Africa contain contaminated waste and non-recyclable materials. Many places are not equipped with the proper resources to safely manage the waste and research has shown that the ensuing pollution has detrimental effects on local populations.
Governments export hundreds of thousands of tons of waste around the globe each year. Roughly two thirds of the United Kingdom’s waste is exported to other countries. Between 2017 and 2018, the UK shipped 105,000 tons of plastics to Malaysia alone. Similarly, in 2018, the US shipped 157,000 cargo containers’ worth of plastic waste overseas.
Although some countries are starting to place restrictions on plastic waste imports, an alarming number still receive the trash other countries do not want to deal with.
Similarly, one might reference Canada’s deployment of mining operations in Guatemala’s Indiengeous communities without their consent. Despite years of protest and proven negative health impacts, Indigenous communities have often been robbed of their natural landscapes and live with long-lasting contaminations to their land and resources. Mines are known for emitting dangerous and even lethal pollutants into nearby rivers, groundwater sources, and the air.
Environmental justice means affirming the rights of all people to live and work in healthy and safe environments without being forced to negotiate between unemployment and lack of well-being. The connection between environmental and social justice gained traction in the dominant human rights narrative in 2019 with the popularization of the term “climate apartheid” and the world’s first joint conference between leading environmental human rights bodies.
The concept of environmental justice demands a right for everyone to be equal partners in decision-making, needs assessment, planning, implementation, and the enforcement and evaluation of environmental issues, policies, and regulations.
Now, as the world takes notice of the injustices plaguing people of color through deeply rooted prejudicial policies and racial biases, World Environment Day is an opportunity to recognize the harmful disparities of environmental crisis as an intersectional issue and seek urgent solutions to protect against and eliminate the painful consequences of racism.