Race, Social Justice

Who are the first to die because of our environmental ignorance?

When they're done killing minorities in secret, it'll all catch up to them.

Caressa Wong’s previous work for Coming of Faith can be found here.

When I took a roughly seven-hour bus ride to Oakland to march for Real Climate Leadership, I didn’t expect to learn what I did. There was a heavy Indigenous presence, and the march itself was led by an Indigenous block. It included speakers and poets that touched on – that’s right – environmental racism. It was then that I realized in our discussions of racism, we always neglect the very pressing issue of environmental justice as we list the various systemic forms that racism takes.

“Okay, yeah,” you might be thinking. “As a human race environmental issues affect all of us.” The reality is not so simple. When different modes of power come into play, nothing is as easy as it seems. Adjust any issue to the current lens of white supremacy, and we get a whole ‘nother take on how things are playing out.

This is where environmental racism steps in. Beginning with the blatant disrespect of treaties with Indigenous tribes and ending in the death of so many unheard, here’s what environmental racism often entails:

1. Increased likelihood of being exposed to environmental hazards

2. Disproportionate negative impacts of environmental processes

3. Disproportionate negative impacts of environmental policies, for example, the differential rate of cleanup of environmental contaminants in communities composed of different racial groups

4. Deliberate targeting and siting of noxious facilities in particular communities

5. Environmental blackmail that arises when workers are coerced or forced to choose between hazardous jobs and environmental standards

6. Segregation of ethnic minority workers in dangerous and dirty jobs

7. Lack of access to or inadequate maintenance of environmental amenities such as parks and playgrounds

8. Inequality in environmental services such as garbage removal and transportation

Already, there seems to be very blatant examples of these occurrences in our society. Certain areas in our communities, often divided by wealth and therefore often by race, are situated near sites that contain toxic or hazardous operations. Even our mental image of most industries is poverty and death surrounded by factories, and it’s quite an accurate picture. “Race continues to be an independent predictor of where hazardous wastes are located, and it is a stronger predictor than income, education and other socioeconomic indicators,” according to Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty:  1987­-2007. “People of color now comprise a majority in neighborhoods with commercial hazardous waste facilities, and much larger (more than two­-thirds) majorities can be found in neighborhoods with clustered facilities.”

It continues on to state that, “For many industries it is a ‘race to the bottom,’ where land, labor and lives are cheap. It’s about profits and the ‘bottom line.’ Environmental ‘sacrifice zones’ are seen as the price of doing business. Vulnerable communities, populations and individuals often fall between the regulatory cracks. They are in many ways ‘invisible’  communities.”

Companies prey on areas that hold little power to resist them, and even when they ask for help it is not received. The evidence is all around us.  A separate investigation into the issue states, among other reports, “In Tacoma, Wash., where paper mills and other industrial polluters ruined the salmon streams and way of life of a Native American tribe, the government never included the tribe in assessing the pollution’s impact on residents’ health. ”

Government officials have always been aware of people of color communities that are posed health risks due to contaminated sites or pollutants from industrial facilities. The fact that these officials fail to respond despite knowing the truth, and even go at lengths to hide it, just highlight how their intent to keep killing people they might consider “second-class citizens”.

The same National Law Journal findings present solid numbers on just how much stricter regulatory laws are in white-majority areas, such as the fact that, ” Penalties under hazardous waste laws at sites having the greatest white population were about 500 percent higher than penalties at sites with the greatest minority population.” They actively choose containment of toxins over treatment in minority-centered communities, the opposite in those of the white-majority, and that, ” action on cleanup at Superfund sites begins from 12 percent to 42 percent later at minority sites than at white sites.” The regulations they do have are less likely to be enforced, and less likely to be spoken out against since a lot of minorities don’t have the know-how, time, or resources to badger authority or seek legislative changes.

“The environmental justice framework adopts a public health model of prevention (elimination of the threat before harm occurs) as the preferred strategy,” meaning that communities shouldn’t have to wait for conclusive proof of contamination before receiving help–in other words, the damage often can not be reverted. Environmental justice calls for prevention, not solely treatment for effected communities. A lot of these communities do not have the wealth required to obtain doctors, lawyers, or other experts in order to provide proof.

I mentioned earlier a heavy Ingenious response to these issues, and they’re for good reason. Long before anyone else had the chance to get exploited, they were the first to be cheated. Now, after so much time, not much as changed. A Greenpeace report states,”Today, hundreds of Indian Nations (Tribes) are being approached by both the waste disposal industry and the United States Government in search of new dumping grounds for the unwanted toxic, nuclear, medical and solid waste of industrial society. Hoping to take advantage of the devastating chronic unemployment, pervasive poverty and sovereign status of Indian Nations, the waste disposal industry and the U.S. government have embarked on an all-out effort to site incinerators, landfills, nuclear waste storage facilities and similar polluting industries on Tribal land”

These lands are exempt from state and local laws, making them ideal for companies to base their operations. Even if that means risking sovereignty, “Waste Tech wanted to restrict the Kaibab-Paiute Tribe from having full access to their own tribal land, and attempted to insert this condition as part of their agreement with tribal officials.”

This article draws, as well, a cultural viewpoint: “The Lakota understand that water is life, and that there is no new water.” After so many broken treaties, slight-of-hand offers, and even threats. ‘This community understands the price of protecting land,” it reads. “And, the use of military force upon a civilian community- carrying an acute memory of the over 133,000 rounds of ammunition fired by the National Guard upon Lakota people forty years ago in the Wounded Knee standoff.”

In the face of our eventual harm to the entirety of human race, minorities have always been the first to suffer. Like indicator species, these communities are the most accurate measure of our environmental health and its effects on humans–it’s just not fair that they’re also the first to die off or face costly and painful illnesses.

As Winona LaDuke says,  “Someone needs to explain to me why wanting clean drinking water makes you an activist, and why proposing to destroy water with chemical warfare doesn’t make a corporation a terrorist.”

To find more studies on environmental racism and the history of environmental justice, refer to this list.