The Environment Might Not be Racist, But Humans Certainly Are

By Austin Ashburn, Staff Writer


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Courtesy of the Food Empowerment Project

On February 27, 2014, there were 1,322 superfund sites within the United States, and more sites are continuing to be proposed for entry on the list. Superfund sites are polluted locations containing several hazardous material contamination that require a long-term response in order to be cleaned up.  Many of these sites, unfortunately, are in areas with either a low socioeconomic status or a high minority population. What these sites represent is a very unnoticed issue within the United States of America: environmental discrimination.

Environmental discrimination, otherwise known as environmental racism, is reportedly defined by journalist Ariana DiValentino as “‘the placement of low-income or minority communities in the proximity of environmentally hazardous or degraded environments, such as toxic waste, pollution and urban decay,’ or as ‘racial discrimination in the development and implementation of environmental policy, especially as manifested in the concentration of hazardous waste disposal sites in or near areas with a relatively large ethnic minority population.’”

The Flint, Michigan water crisis is probably the most infamous of environmental descrimination issues occuring in the past few years, in addition to that in North Dakota with the Sioux tribe at Standing Rock. The Dakota Access Pipeline has caused severe harm and physical pain to the Sioux people, yet this is a struggle that has been undermined for years.

Another specific example within the United States is the issue of air pollution. As stated by NPR, “Pollution, much like wealth, is not distributed equally in the United States.” Researchers have discovered for quite some time that black and Hispanic Americans live in neighborhoods suffering from more pollution than white Americans. “After accounting for population size differences,” says NPR, “whites experience about 17 percent less air pollution than they produce, through consumption, while blacks and Hispanics bear 56 and 63 percent more air pollution, respectively, than they cause by their consumption, according to the study.” With such a large gap, it cannot just be coincidence that white Americans suffer the effects of air pollution far less than racial minority groups do.

While Ana Diez Roux, an epidemiologist at Drexel University, acknowledges that the results are striking, she admits that they are not surprising. She says, however, that if we want to decrease the inequity and disparities between race, “we may need to rethink how we build our cities and how they grow, our dependence on automobile transportation… These are hard things we have to consider.”

Many local environmentalist groups and advocates believe that the Environmental Protection Agency, known as EPA, is turning a blind eye to the issue of most superfund sites and pollution occurring in areas with a low-income and a high minority population. The Genesee Power Station was given a complaint that referenced Michigan’s failure at protecting Flint, Michigan’s African American population from the water crisis, not providing them with the same protection they would for other communities. While discrimination was found in this Genesee case, it is only the second finding of environmental discrimination since 2011, when in reality there are so many more cases of environmental issues disproportionately harming minority communities.

In Chicago, for instance, it is clear that the public health indicators the inner cities, which have low financial stability and a high population of minority groups, are much worse. This example depicts environmental discrimination in a very segregated city, and one can see that the African American community in Chicago faces much more danger from pollution than the white community does.

While many have argued, “How can the environment be racist? That doesn’t make any sense,” the truth is that environmental discrimination stems from us. From the human beings who have created segregated areas and have has decided where these toxic plants and polluted sites should be located. We need to not only take care of our environment for the future, but also take care of the issues that we have already caused within the environment. This involves better funding superfund project sites, especially those that have been impacted by cases of environmental racism and discrimination.