Environmental Racism

Published: 2019-09-09 07:30:00
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Environmental degradation in the United States happened in the wake of the tremendous upsurge of petrochemical plants across the country after the end of the Second World War. The investments resulted in the massive discharge of hazardous waste products into the environment, thereby causing a health risk to millions of citizens who resided within the proximity of these power plants. In the 1980s, the phenomenon received the attention of environmental activists, affected communities and non-governmental organizations who conducted campaigns against the disposal of hazardous wastes into the areas that were inhabited by people. The interesting part of the disposal activities was that they exhibited racial attributes (Taylor, 2014). The massive discharge of toxic waste materials selectively targeted areas that were predominantly inhabited by minority communities, resulting in the coinage of the terms Environmental Racism and Environmental Justice.

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According to Taylor (2014), Environmental Racism(ER) represents the institutional or industrial action that disproportionately disposes of hazardous waste materials in areas that are predominantly inhabited by minority communities. Taylor argues that these measures amplify the institutional exposure to minority groups to dehumanizing conditions that these communities have endured for centuries. The people affected by these environmental degrading actions include African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-American, Native Americans and Pacific Highlanders. According to Government Accountability Office (GAO), one in four Americans lives within three miles of a contaminated site. GAO also indicates that most of these contaminated sites are located in areas that are predominant with minorities such as blacks. The effect of these activities is a degraded quality of life in the form of reduced life spans, poor health, higher infant mortality, and poverty. In this paper, environmental racism and its consequences on the involved communities will be investigated.

Environmental Racism in the United States: Case of Flint, Michigan

The pollution of water that residents of Flint used for drinking and bathing accentuates environmental racism in America. According to the United States Census Bureau (2010), the city of Flint is composed of 57% African-American, 37% white, and 4% each for the Latinos and the rest constitutes other races. The statistics also indicate that the majority of the residents in the city are poor, putting the number of those living under the poverty line at 40% of the total population. Once vibrant with manufacturing of automobiles, the city experienced a considerable decline in car production as a result of the crisis that hit auto giants such as the General Motors. These developments led to the loss of jobs due to the departure of the manufacturing industries from the city. The overall ramifications were increased poverty, deplorable living conditions and increased crime rates (Bryant & Hockman, 2011). Taylor (2014) argues that the mentioned conditions create a perfect environment for abuse through environmental degradation as these individuals lack the capacities to petition authorities for better living standards and improved service delivery from state agencies. Also, the conditions expose the residents to neglect from the local authorities in so far as the provision of essential services is concerned. The failure by the Michigan state authorities to assume responsibility for the protection of the residents from hazardous exposures was epitomized in the water crisis.

In April 2014, municipal authorities of the city of Flint made a decision not to renew a contract with the Detroit water system to save money for the struggling industrial city. In effect, the local authorities opted to draw water from Flint River, which passes through the declining citys manufacturing waste (Martinez, 2016). According to Martinez, the decision to change supply from the Lake Huron exhibit racial attributes because the majority of the residents are not only people of color but also live in poverty occasioned by the decline of the auto manufacturing industry in the city. Studies carried out in 2011 indicated that the Flint River had elevated levels of contamination and therefore required treatment before declaring it fit for human consumption. In this regard, municipal authorities were under obligation to carry out the treatment before arriving at the decision to cut off links with the Detroit water system (Elgon, 2016. Also, the state government was under obligation to protect the rights of the citizens as measure of discretion since Flint River passes through the city and therefore there were all the possibilities that the water would be contaminated from the industrial seepages (Elgon, 2016)

The crisis relates to the 1982 incident in North Carolina, which represents one of the earliest documented incidents that point to ER .During the incident, state officials made the decision to bury hazardous soil with toxic polychlorinated biphenyl in the town of Afton, Warren County that was predominantly inhabited by people of color. According to the US Census Bureau, during this period, 60% of Warren County residents were African-Americans. The decision for a landfill in Afton contravened the residents fundamental rights, but the state authorities eventually buried the contaminated soil. It is interesting to note that scientific findings did not approve of the decision because of the health ramifications that such an action portended (Taylor, 2014). The studies showed that the water table across the County was so shallow that the disposal of such waste material would result in contamination of water in the surrounding areas. There was also the existence of scientific evidence of the health implications of polychlorinated biphenyl contamination in Japan where the chemical was linked to liver cancer, stomach cancer, skin disruptions and reproductive disorders (Taylor, 2014). Similarly, the Flint authorities ignored the health implications of using water that had been declared to contain toxic levels of lead and iron. In spite of the scientific findings in 2011 regarding the toxicity of Flint River, the state government implemented the plan of delinking Flint from the Detroit water supply system, citing cost implications (Elgon, 2016)

Martinez (2016) observes that the response to the water crisis has a correlation with the issue of institutional racism in America that is perpetrated in the form of skewed allocation of resources and total disregard of the lives of minority groups. The argument is grounded on the slow response to the reports linking the water to skin problems and other health complications that were reported in local medical facilities. There was also the reported unusual coloration of the water that provided ample evidence of contamination. Instead of responding to the safety concerns, the state leaders made attempts to convince the residents that the water was safe and issued boiling advisories to remedy the situation (Elgon, 2016). Such responses were also witnessed in the Warren County landfill where the authorities from the state government of North Carolina crashed protests, leading to the arrest of more than five hundred people for blocking the putting up of the landfill (Washington, 2005).Hillary Clinton also cemented the ER dimension of the Flint crisis when she argued that:

We've had a city in the United States of America where the population which is poor in many ways and majority African-American has been drinking and bathing in lead-contaminated water, and the governor of that state acted as though he didn't really care. He had requests for help that he basically stonewalled. I'll tell you what, if the kids in a rich suburb of Detroit had been drinking contaminated water, and being bathed in it there would've been action (Clinton, January, 17)

The response of the authorities after two years of complaints from the residents presents some similarities in the way the North Carolina handled the Warren County issue. It was after the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) declared the Afton town landfills a health hazard that state government contracted for detoxification of the site (Taylor, 2014). Similarly, the mayor of Flint took action after research findings of Virginia Tech were made public, causing outrage across the country. As Taylor (Washington, 2005) notes, the state authorities seem not to care about the implications of their actions regarding health care and detoxification yet documentary evidence suggest that these are inevitable outcomes of their poor management of the environment. The illustrated actions of government institutions and the slow responses to such crises facing the poor and minority groups reinforce the hypothesis of ER.

Other Cases of Environmental Racism

The Altgeld Gardens in Chicago

The Altgeld community is zoned off from Chicago by a sewage treatment facility, incinerators, and multiple landfills. These facilities expose the residents to hazardous waste materials that have resulted in long-term health conditions. Research by the Illinois Public Health revealed that the heavy metals that are deposited near residential areas caused multiple health problems. The study linked the alarming rates of prostate, bladder and lung cancer to the toxic environment of industrial emissions and discharges (Washington, 2005). Also, the research found out that the abnormalities found in unborn children had a relationship with polluted surroundings. Statistics indicate that more than 80% of Altgeld Gardens are black (Illinois Environmental Council). In spite of the health risks that have been identified in the area, plants such as pet coke storage facilities continue to operate against the laws of the Unite States and no deliberate efforts have been made to relocate the residents from this hazardous environment.

Chester, Pennsylvania

Chester is a small city located in Delaware County, Pennsylvania. The city is home to low-income African-Americans, who constitute more than half of the population amidst of affluent towns of predominantly white residents. It plays host to the Westinghouse incinerator that handles trash from the whole of Delaware County, sewage plant that treats all the sewage from the entire county, oil refineries, and other polluters. Research findings indicate that cancer rates among the city of Chester residents are more than two times higher than other parts of the state. Also, studies have shown that mortality rates are 40% higher and the highest in the entire state among children (Chester Environmental Justice).These results explain the health risks black and other minorities experience as a result of living in the vicinity of pollutants.

Factors that Promote Environmental Racism

Lack of education represents one of the leading contributions to the endemic racial profiling in the allocation of resources. The declining manufacturing industry compounds the problem in Flint, leading to widespread poverty due to loss of jobs. These conditions make people have limited access to education and economic opportunities. Lack of education and economic opportunities provided the favorable environment for manipulation from institutions that offer public services since the residents do not have the sufficient information on how to lodge petitions to the relevant agencies regarding the harmful actions of industrial players (Taylor, 2014). In the same breadth, suburbanization policies resulted in the zoning of areas that are occupied by particular races (Taylor, 2014). These practices are happening within the framework of the historical marginalization of black and other minority communities in the country

Inadequate representation also locks out the marginalized communities from the decision-making process. The...

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