What is Environmental Racism?
By: Namra Khan
The United Nations has reported that we have ten years to cut down worldwide CO2 emissions by 45% to avoid causing irreversible damage to the Earth.
While we strive for greener policies, it’s important to know that being an environmental advocate does not stand independently from being an anti-racist. Although climate change is a problem that all humans will and are being affected by, Black and brown people are being affected the most heavily due to racial inequality.
What is environmental racism?
Coined by Dr. Robert D.Bullard in the ‘90s, environmental racism is when minority communities are forced to deal with environmental hazards like factory pollution, toxic waste dumps, spills, air, and water pollution, that affect their health and food security at a rate disproportionate to non-minority communities.
A 20-year study conducted by Dr.Bullard in 2007 determined that race is “more important than socioeconomic status in predicting the location of the nation’s commercial hazardous waste facilities.” On top of that, a study at Yale found that Black people had the highest exposure rates than whites for 13/14 pollutants. These pollutants have been linked to heart issues, asthma, lung disease, and cancer. And in a 2017 Feeding America report, rates of food insecurity were higher than the U.S. national average for Black and Latinx households. Climate change and racial inequality are not only robbing BIPOC of longer life expectancies and good health, but of food as well.
Dying for a breath of fresh air and clean water
The practice of “redlining” has had a lasting impact on how Black and minority communities experience global warming today. This discriminatory, and once legal practice was used to concentrate Black and POC within neighborhoods marked as “hazardous” by mapping them in red.
Mortgage lenders were made wary of these homeowners and the areas they inhabited. Not only did this concentrate poverty and suppress homeownership rates, but according to research at the Science Museum of Virginia and Portland State University, the data from 108 formerly redlined U.S. cities shows temperatures to be 5-20 degrees higher than non-redlined cities.
In these inner cities, where urban heat islands have formed (city areas that tend to be hotter than their surroundings), residents are dying of air pollution and extreme heat at a higher rate than all other causes. Black and minority communities are quite literally dying for a breath of fresh air as global warming accelerates and temperatures continue to rise. And unlike white areas, which have decades of investment in trees, parks, and transportation, and fair housing policies, these residents suffer from limited job opportunities, little to no naturally-cooling green space, and high electric bills.
When BIPOC speak up about wanting access to clean air and drinking water, they are minimized and silenced. The Flint Water Crisis, which has been contaminating Flint, Michigan’s water for six years, has gone on so long because of its 57% Black and 40% poor demographic-whose complaints of toxic and corrosive water were attributed to residents simply wanting to cause a political uproar with a Republican governor.
And now, BIPOC bear the brunt of COVID-19, as essential workers and victims of environmental racism. People of color are nearly twice as likely as white residents to live within a fence line zone of an industrial facility. And it has been proven that Americans plagued with poor air quality are more likely to die from COVID-19 even when accounting for other factors such as pre-existing medical conditions, socioeconomic status, and access to healthcare. Therefore, it’s no surprise that the COVID-19 pandemic-which likely links to climate change as one of its causes-is killing BIPOC at freakishly high rates.
Western brands amplify climate change globally
The effects of climate change and racism are not just affecting non-white people in the U.S., they have also been destroying communities of color in developing countries for nearly a decade. In poorer Asian and African countries, Western fashion brands inflict ecological harm, while knowingly taking advantage of poverty, lower standards of living, and lower wages. They demand cheaper and cheaper production costs and practices, with no concern for the hazardous working conditions, environmental degradation, and public health catastrophes that they cause.
In Dhaka, Bangladesh the Buriganga River, one of the most polluted rivers in the world, consists of textile mills and leather tannery runoff from factories fulfilling fashion apparel and accessory orders from Western brands. The Buriganga is filled with chemical runoff that is causing hormonal and nervous-system-related health problems for the 12 million people who depend on it for drinking, fishing, and washing clothes. As a local journalist said to David McIlvride, one of the documentarians behind RiverBlue, “Don’t you see you are killing us over here?”
What can we do?
Climate change is the threat and racial inequality and systems/corporations that accelerate climate change are the poisonous catalysts that kill Black and brown people at disproportionate rates. It’s important to understand that our anti-racism must span across politics, business, economics, and borders to effectively dismantle the far-reaching systems of racism, leaving no aspect of Black and brown existence- untouched.
We can vote for policymakers that want a greener future and those who plan to fix historical racial disparities when it comes to housing and public health concerns for Black and POC. We can sign petitions to apply pressure on fashion brands to publish what environmental and workplace practices are being used in each step of the garment creation process. And most importantly, we can share information on environmental racism and live more consciously making sure we aren’t adding unnecessary fuel to the system that destroys our Earth and oppresses people of color.
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