Recently, Hurricane Laura raged through the Southern US, Haiti and Dominican Republic. It left dozens dead and thousands without a home. Unsurprisingly, the storm affected people of color most drastically.
15 years ago, Hurricane Katrina disproportionately hurt Black communities. Much of their infrastructure was insufficient to weather the storm.
Are these examples a coincidence? Why do rich, white people not bear equal burden of environmental disasters?
The history of environmental racism
In America, it all started with slavery. One of the many reasons white folks used so many unpaid Black workers was because they didn’t want to expose themselves to environmental dangers like the burning sun and mosquitos or other animals that carried diseases. Though the face of environmental racism changed since, its core remains the same.
Studies show people of color are more likely to live near toxic waste facilities, garbage dumps and other polluted areas than white people. Half of all Native Americans live in areas filled with uncontrolled, hazardous waste. Latinx Americans are exposed to 63% more pollution than they produce, Black Americans to 56% more. Non-Hispanic white Americans, meanwhile, face 17% less than they create. To this day, people of color carry white people’s burden.
Race determines health
Pollution has devastating physical effects. It increases asthma presence and severity and results in low birth weights and high blood pressures.
All around the world, waste and pollution cause health problems among minorities. Many blame this on the relation of race and poverty. However, a study found that race is more important than socioeconomic status in predicting the location of dangerous waste. Black Americans making $50,000 to $60,000 a year are more likely to live in polluted neighborhoods than white people making $10,000 a year.
Waste dumps are regularly built on protected Native lands. The Latinx community faces double the chorine exposure as white people. This links to heart disease. Black American children are five times more likely to have waste poisoning than white children.
This is all to say that people of color develop health issues from contaminated groundwater, playgrounds next to plants with toxic emissions and dangerous levels of asbestos and lead in schools. White people avoid pollution more or less unscathed.
Environmental racism during the pandemic
Black and Hispanic kids have the highest rates of asthma. Respiratory issues like this can grow into lung cancer. They are also risk factors when it comes to viruses like COVID-19.
People of color were much more likely to have to quarantine in a building or area polluted with toxins. Often, they are confined to housing that isn’t stable. Storms and hurricanes dangerously affect them, especially if they are unable to flee from their homes and find shelter with someone else.
To them, COVID-19 is a triple-threat.
No hope for justice
Flint Michigan made headlines in 2014 when over 100,000 of its residents suffered from lead poisoning. When Flint’s drinking water source changed, public officials did not bother to ensure its safety. The city’s population is 57% Black and 40% impoverished.
Lead poisoning is especially dangerous for children, as it affects their brain development. This can result in a challenging academic future for them.
To this day, over six years after Flint’s water crisis began, no one has been held accountable.
One of the reasons why environmental racism is so rampant is because minority communities often don’t have the political power to defend themselves. Leaders in ecology movements are mainly white. The government attempted to address the issue by creating the EPA, the environmental protection agency. However, in its 22-year history, the EPA claims to have never found a single instance of environmental discrimination.
Regulators continuously ignore petitions and letters sent in by minority communities, who don’t possess the resources to fight costly legal battles or raise awareness online. The Guardian found that the US government had gone as far as to distort water tests to downplay lead content in 2016. Again, there were no criminal charges.
Meek political attempts
Bill Clinton signed an executive order commanding federal agents to consider environmental justice in all policies. He also tried to extend civil rights to environmental discrimination. But congress never passed the bill that would make the order into law. Perhaps it now lays in a stack of papers, covered under heaps of pleading letters from Native and Latinx communities.
Clinton was the last president to address this issue. Following him, George W. Bush changed the focus of environmental protection from “minority communities” to “all people” – much like many now try to shift the focus from “black lives” to “all lives,” so many years later. Obama never filed a single bill regarding environmental justice. All and any civil rights claims were rejected or delayed for years.
A global problem
The USA is far from the only country that suffers from environmental racism. Worldwide, developing countries serve as a waste dump. Corporations benefit from their low health standards and cheap labor.
44 million tonnes of e-waste – an average 13 pounds per human – are transported to Asia every year. In Guiyu, China, 80% of the kids have been poisoned by old computer parts. In the UK, Black children are exposed to up to 30% more pollution than white children. Meanwhile, Mexico, used a dump for spent American batteries, is facing soaring rates of anencephaly, a condition where babies are born without brains.
To this day, zip codes are the most important predictor of health, all around the world. As the global rates of pollution and waste continue to increase, one can only guess what devastating effects this will have on communities of color.