Often times when we think of racism, we think of segregation, police brutality,  and gerrymandering. Sometimes we recall the aggressive marginalization of Native Americans, land theft, and broken treaties. However, an aspect of discrimination and racism that often gets overlooked is environmental racism. It is a prime example that racism is more than just political systems conspiring to harm and oppress people of color. Racism manifests itself in many ways, sometimes in the very act of destroying a community without ever lifting a weapon. The official definition of environmental racism is neighborhoods with a large minority population being burdened with a disproportionate number of health hazards. These can include toxic waste dumps and facilities, food deserts, and other factors that lower a person’s quality of life. But another definition of environmental racism is the physical manifestation of the lack of regard that is shown to minority groups.

The parallels between impoverished minority communities in the United States and abroad are striking. “Cancer Alley” is an area along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. These river communities have been continually polluted by large oil companies leading to high rates of cancer in the area. This mirrors South Durban, the industrial hub of the South African city. It is home to two of the largest oil refineries of the country.

Under the apartheid system, these environmentally dangerous activities and buildings were placed in the proximity of black neighborhoods.  Since at least 2001, the Medical Research Council of South Africa has linked air pollution to respiratory problems of children in Durban.  Today, the South Durban basin still has an overwhelmingly black population.

Like Cancer Alley, South Durban is affected by environmental racism in a myriad of ways.  Environmental degradation not only destroys their physical health but their economic health as well. Due to mounting medical bills, many people end up in debt. Additionally, their homes being in such close quarters with polluting businesses seriously worsens the value of their property. Subsequently, they are too sick to stay but too poor to leave.

One of the most pressing issues of our time has been the plastic waste build-up from western countries and now Asian countries refusing to continue taking tons of it in. This is a landmark decision for many Southeast Asian countries because they have been collecting plastic waste from richer nations for at least 25 years much to the detriment of their health and their own environment. Many of us do not think about where our plastic bottles and bags go. Once we put them in our recycling bins, they disappear from memory.

The rejection of plastic waste by these countries, which is now sitting on ports around Western countries with nowhere to go is important.  It brings into focus that toxic waste and other pollutants do not vanish. They land somewhere, usually with the poorest, the brownest and the most vulnerable people. This nonacceptance is in its own way a protest and a declaration. No longer will the global south be the dumping ground of western countries.

The defiant nonacceptance of these countries brings to mind similarities with other struggles concerning environmental racism. Such as the recent protests of the occupants of Flint Michigan who continue to face an uphill battle in a continued fight for clean water. The reason why these communities continue to be targeted is quite simple. Large corporations and other powerful entities do not believe that these communities are strong enough to fight them and they don’t care what happens to people who don’t look and have as much money as them. However, more and more people are speaking up and we all should speak up. Different communities from all over the world ranging from  Indigenous people of the Amazon, to ‘Miss Flint’ (Mari Copeny)  have made it clear that environmental racism is a huge problem. It is an issue poor and people of color have been dealing with for a very long time. We need to listen to them and take action.

  • Modupe Oladiwura Adio is a writer and lawyer from Lagos Nigeria. Modupe is obsessed with all things pop culture and the intricacies of global black culture and its impact on the world.