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Environmental Racism and its Effects on the Poor and Marginalized

The concept of environmental racism emerged in the US during the 1970s and and following decades, it has been identified as a global issue that hampers the growth of marginalized communities. The true meaning of the term has been a topic of debate amongst many, but Benjamin Chavis, former head of the United Church of Christ’s Commission on Racial Justice, coined the term during the 1982 protests against the siting of a hazardous waste landfill in North Carolina. His definition is as follows:

Environmental racism is racial discrimination in environmental policy-making and enforcement of regulations and laws, the deliberate targeting of communities of color for toxic waste facilities, the official sanctioning of the presence of life-threatening poisons and pollutants for communities of color, and the history of excluding people of color from leadership of the environmental movement.

This form of systemic racism moves beyond police brutality and the criminal justice system to disproportionately affect the health of communities of colour through policies and practices that coerce them into living in proximity to toxic waste. This is not a problem that is seen in the US alone; areas that are home to racialized communities, recent immigrants, and people with low incomes in Canada, Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities in the UK, tribal communities from the North-Eastern states of India, and others have also been subject to this.

In the UK, the death of 9-year-old Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah with air pollution listed as her cause of death shed light on this saddening fact. In a 2019 report, Natural England found BAME Britons are exposed to particulate matter pollution at rates 19-29% higher than White Britons. In India, the deaths of two people and displacement of 7,000 tribal villagers due to the Baghjan oil blowout in Assam went unnoticed while the news of a gas leak in Vizag, Andhra Pradesh gained more attention and sympathy in the eyes of both the media and the general public. In Canada, an example of this among others would be the lack of safe drinking water for the First Nations communities, who are indigenous Canadians with 75% water systems being at high or medium risk of contamination.

Dorceta Taylor, professor at the Yale School of the Environment and author of Toxic Communities: Environmental Racism, Industrial Pollution, and Residential Mobility, stated that the fines for violating environmental laws tend to be lower in Black and poor communities. Therefore, corporations take advantage of this to dump waste and have industries that produce hazardous waste. These lands may have been inhabited by these communities long before the entry of these industries but decreased in value with increasing air pollution.

Environmental racism does not limit itself to class; highly educated, middle-class Black people are also more likely to have hazardous waste sites beside their communities than white people, thereby suggesting that it has to do more to do with race than class. However, multiple studies hold that unemployed people, those with low income or low education, and racial or ethnic groups have greater adverse impacts than whites. A higher risk of premature death from particle pollution is often seen in non-white communities with lower socioeconomic status, but the risk of death is greater than that of white even in high-income Black households.

A shocking report from the California Waste Management Board in 1984 suggested that companies locate new waste sites in lower socio-economic neighbourhoods in order to avoid the opposition typically encountered in higher-income areas. This indicates deliberate targeting of lower-income communities by policy-makers themselves. Of course, living in such conditions can be detrimental to mental health along with physical health. Dilapidating physical and psychological well-being continues to pose a major concern among low-income, Black communities. Further, it also places on communities of colour greater financial stress since environmental policies seem to affect people unequally based on race. Reports show that the Black population pays higher bills for energy and water than their white counterparts.

Hence, it has become crucial to take up better measures to curb environmental racism - especially in the age of COVID-19 where non-whites are more likely to succumb due to the virus, a potential result of health issues arising from air pollution. The first step is to make the general public cognizant of this saddening reality and urge them to render support towards activism. Encouraging students, especially those from marginalized communities, to take up academic studies in environmental protection and policy-making sectors by giving them scholarships is another weapon that could prove beneficial in battling this issue. Providing them with funds and professional training would empower those who are aware of the struggle to find ways to control the same. Including diverse members and residents of such communities as part of the decision and policy-making process would help curb the problem to a great extent. Finally, placing pressure upon authority to clean up current hazardous waste as well as implement stringent and pragmatic measures that ensure the prohibition of generating toxic waste in the future is required to solve the harm caused by environmental racism.

Cover photo by: 素辉 李


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