How does systematic racism affect our community and environmental policies?
The term environmental racism, first established by Benjamin Chavis, an African American civil rights leader, can be defined as “racial discrimination in defining environmental policies, discriminatory enforcement of regulations and laws, deliberate targeting of minority communities as hazardous waste dumping sites, official sanctioning of dangerous pollutants in minority communities, and the exclusion of people of color from environmental leadership positions” (Chavis). Environmental racism targets communities of color, particularly those who live in lower socioeconomic areas. In our lifetime, one of the most prominent examples of environmental racism is the Flint, Michigan water crisis which started in 2014 and lasted up until 2019 (Carmody). Flint, Michigan’s population is composed primarily of Black residents with more than a third of the total population of the city living below the poverty line (Carmody). According to a professor at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability, the Flint Water crisis was “...the most egregious example of environmental injustice and racism in my over three decades of studying this issue” (Erickson). The government officials within Flint refused to take the complaints of the constituents seriously until the problem grew so large they couldn’t ignore it anymore. This lack of accountability from the local government exacerbated the problem and sparked a huge environmental justice movement led by local residents demanding access to clean water.
Unfortunately, environmental racism as witnessed in Flint, Michigan is prevalent in Los Angeles, California as well. An article from the LA Times reports that after the closing of the Exide plant in Vernon, many families are still waiting for state cleanup procedures to remove the hazardous levels of lead contamination plaguing the properties surrounding the plant (Barboza & Poston). While 7,5000 properties have been tested to be contaminated with unsafe amounts of lead according to state standards, the government only plans on cleaning up 2,500 properties that are the “most polluted” (Barboza & Poston). Shockingly, they had only made progress on 270 properties three years after the plant closed (Barboza & Poston). The majority that suffer due to the government’s long delay are working-class Latinos (Barboza & Poston). Since the impact of lead contamination is highly detrimental for developing children, many parents are uncomfortable sending their children out to play in their own yards.
Another article from the LA Times dives deep into the consequences of idle oil wells in California. The idle oil wells, when left unplugged, are notorious for emitting toxic emissions and carcinogens, such as benzene and formaldehyde. Additionally, these wells release flammable gases that contribute to poor air quality. Data shows that Latino, Black, and low-income residents make up a higher rate of individuals who live near unplugged oil wells located in Los Angeles (Olalde & Menezes). These populations are disproportionately vulnerable to the negative health consequences. Oil companies have chosen to prioritize profit over all else, focusing on cleaning up wells located in rural areas compared to more expensive cleanup jobs in urban areas like LA. When residents who lived close to these oil wells were interviewed, they had no faith that oil companies would do anything to properly deal with the environmental consequences of unplugged oil wells.
Environmental racism will continue to play a role in our society until there is tangible systemic change. It is imperative that we demand change and better living conditions for marginalized groups that suffer the most at the hands of environmental catastrophes.