What is environmental racism and why should we care about it

All are examples of environmental racism, a form of systemic racism whereby communities of colour are disproportionately burdened with health hazards through policies and practices that force them to live in proximity to sources of toxic waste such as sewage works, mines, landfills, power stations, major roads and emitters of airborne particulate matter. As a result, these communities suffer greater rates of health problems attendant on hazardous pollutants.

It was African American civil rights leader Benjamin Chavis who coined the term “environmental racism” in 1982, describing it as “racial discrimination in environmental policy-making, the enforcement of regulations and laws, the deliberate targeting of communities of colour for toxic waste facilities, the official sanctioning of the life-threatening presence of poisons and pollutants in our communities, and the history of excluding people of colour from leadership of the ecology movements”.

In practice, environmental racism can take many forms, from workplaces with unsound health regulations to the siting of coal-fired power stations close to predominantly non-white communities. It can mean citizens drinking contaminated groundwater or being schooled in decaying buildings with asbestos problems.

Many of these problems face low-income communities as a whole, but race is often a more reliable indicator of proximity to pollution. A landmark 2007 study by academic Dr Robert Bullard – the “father of environmental justice” – found “race to be more important than socioeconomic status in predicting the location of the nation’s commercial hazardous waste facilities”. He proved that African American children were five times more likely to have lead poisoning from proximity to waste than Caucasian children, while even black Americans making $50-60,000 a year were more likely to live in polluted areas than their white counterparts making $10,000. In the UK meanwhile, a government report found that black British children are exposed to up to 30% more air pollution than white children.

Also read: Modi govt gets over 17 lakh responses to draft EIA, will vet them to prepare final version

Lead astray

The case of Flint, Michigan, is a prime example of environmental racism. In 2014, to save money, the city changed its water source to the Flint river, but failed to treat the new supply adequately, exposing the city’s 100,000 majority-black inhabitants to dangerous levels of lead from ageing pipes and other contaminants such as E.coli. Between 6,000 and 12,000 children drank tap water containing high levels of lead, a neurotoxin, while 12 citizens eventually died from Legionnaires’ disease. However, for 18 months, residents’ complaints of foul-smelling and discoloured water, of hair loss and skin rashes, were dismissed until community pressure forced the city to reconnect to the former supply and admit wrongdoing. The Michigan Civil Rights Commission concluded that the slow official reaction was a “result of systemic racism”.

We are deeply grateful to our readers & viewers for their time, trust and subscriptions.

Quality journalism is expensive and needs readers to pay for it. Your support will define our work and ThePrint’s future.