Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
September 18, 2020

We must prioritize environmental racism

By TANVI NARVEKAR | August 5, 2020

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Decreased air quality in predominately Black and Latinx communities increases susceptibility to COVID-19.

When discussing racism, it is important to note how people of color have continuously been put in situations that compromise their health and wellness. Environmental racism is the discrimination or lack of concern toward people of color, particularly those in the Black, Latinx and Native American communities. Environmental justice is the movement that works toward diminishing those differences.

I would like to begin the discussion of environmental racism by exploring a current issue: People of color are being affected by the pandemic to a greater extent. 

In Southern California, warehouses are being built in areas where many Latinx and Black people live and work. Greater industrialization leads to more pollution and decreased air quality. Additionally, warehouse workers who are closest to the pollution are predominately Black and Latinx. This can increase susceptibility to the virus, which is mirrored in the number of cases increasing in the area. 

In Riverside County, Calif., Latinx people are affected by the coronavirus two and a half times more than white people in terms of the number of cases. It is important that these companies take care of their workers and make sure that safety measures are taken for their protection.

In University of Illinois student Lisen Holmström’s article “The Mother of Environmental Justice,” I found a profound thought that highlights the main problem of environmental racism: “Zip codes can be linked to increased mortality risks.”

As a society, we tend to ignore the effects that racism has on living conditions, but these discussions are the first step to combating environmental racism.

Another example of environmental racism is the Flint water crisis. On April 25, 2014, after a failed deal to make the Detroit River the primary water source for Flint residents, the city acted on the advice of an emergency fiscal manager and decided to use the Flint River instead. 

This was despite the fact that the Flint River was being contaminated with pollution from companies that used the river as their dumping ground.

General Motors, the main company that was polluting the river, had previously reported that the water was not suitable for their factory, as it corroded car parts due to high lead levels. In addition, there were never any provisions made to filter out the lead in the water. 

Despite this, the Flint River still provided water to residents without their knowledge. On Jan. 2, 2015, the water was officially announced to be in violation of the Safe Water Drinking Act. Although lead levels have improved, the Flint water crisis still hasn’t been completely solved.

According to geographer Laura Pulido’s essay “Flint, Environmental Racism, and Racial Capitalism,” the Flint water crisis was not dealt with the urgency that it deserved. In 2014, the population of Flint was 57 percent Black, and around 42 percent of the population lived below the poverty line. More broadly, Black people, Indigenous people and people of color in general have less access to potable water. 

This shows that people of color are being deserted because they are not valued enough. In addition, there is no resource allocation toward the crisis itself. Pulido argues that this lack of effort is because people of color are not made a priority.

Another example is Altgeld Gardens on the South Side of Chicago, a housing development nicknamed the Toxic Donut because of the horrible living conditions in the area. 

Altgeld Gardens was built in 1945 to provide housing for Black veterans. Cancer rates on the South Side are much higher than average, and two parts of the area, Altgeld Gardens and Calumet City, had significantly more cases than other parts of Chicago. In addition, residents report a horrible smell which prevents them from breathing properly.

Let’s get into what exactly causes these problems. The area is surrounded by 50 landfills, one sewage waste treatment plant and 250 leaking storage tanks. The main culprits include the Calumet Water Reclamation Plant, whose discharge is eventually taken to Altgeld Gardens and the Pullman Palace Car Company, which used the land for the dumping of toxic sludge waste. 

There are also toxic compounds in the houses themselves, including lead and asbestos. The presence of lead inside houses and buildings has decreased over the past years, but lead is still present in the soil. Lead poisoning can lead to stunted brain development, a lower IQ and other behavioral issues.

In addition, barrels of polychlorinated biphenyls, a very toxic compound, were illegally left in a storage unit in the area for 30 years, which eventually led to a class action lawsuit. Data collected by People for Community Recovery showed that respiratory issues and skin rashes were observed in 90 percent of Altgeld Gardens residents.

Let’s look at the demographics of Altgeld Gardens. Altgeld Gardens has a large Black community, and 62 percent live below the poverty line. It was created through zoning laws that formed racially segregated areas.

Although 500,000 American children are affected by lead poisoning, there is less attention and action specifically for the Black community. This shows how even though the problem of lead poisoning affects many different communities, communities of color don’t get the same attention for it.

We have learned that awareness is important, but in addition to that, we should take some steps to help combat environmental racism and bring environmental justice.

Consider Hazel M. Johnson, a pioneer in the environmental justice movement. Johnson took note of the horrible living conditions in Altgeld Gardens and decided to create change by founding People for Community Recovery, an organization that fights for environmental justice. She held protests and publicized the toxic conditions in her community. 

Her fight for change led to the signing of an executive order, “Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations,” issued by U.S. President Bill Clinton in 1994.

Johnson described the hypocrisy of environmental activism in an interview with the Chicago Tribune.

“It’s all very well to embrace saving the rainforests and conserving endangered animal species, but such global initiatives don’t even begin to impact communities inhabited by people of color,” Johnson said. 

Our government and other organizations need to be aware of what they have been doing for a long time: neglecting communities of color.

Mustafa Ali, a leader who worked in environmental justice at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), resigned in 2017 due to a cut in the EPA’s funding issued by the White House. In an interview with the Washington Post explaining his departure, he mentioned that the Trump administration has a certain set of goals that does not include environmental justice.

“I can’t be a part of anything that would hurt those communities,” he said.

We need big corporations to fix environmental issues instead of just making promises, and there should be penalties if they don’t follow through. 

For example, with the Pullman Car Company in Flint, legal action must be taken to make sure that pollution does not continue. Foremost, changes should be based on feedback from the communities who have been affected. 

Environmental justice should be a goal for every person and organization. To say that environmental justice is not a goal is to say that you choose to ignore communities that have constantly been left to suffer. The government is supposed to protect every single person, and it is absolutely an injustice not to protect and serve people of color too. Everyone deserves to live in a safe environment.

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