By: Cassandra Bazile
When we hear of racial injustice, we tend to think of police brutality or the criminal justice system’s war against minorities; but what about the air and water we consume? “Environmental racism”, a term coined in the 1980s, plagues the United States as many illegal dumps, chemical plants and sewage treatment plants reside in the backyards of people of color and the poor. Polices and practices are implemented to discriminate against people based on race and social class by forcing them live in areas near facilities that are major causes of pollution. These waste facilities contain toxins and carcinogens such as lead, cobalt and Styrene. People who live in these areas are inhaling and consuming toxins that can cause generational defects. Research has shown that middle class African Americans who make between $50,000-60,000 a year are more likely to live in a polluted neighborhood than white Americans who make just $10,000 a year. Don’t believe me? Let’s talk about some cases of environmental racism.
Along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge there are over 150 industrial factories that produce a quarter of the nation’s petrochemicals. The 85-mile stretch, infamously known as “Cancer Alley”, has been known for the unusual cases of cancer and mysterious illness that happen in its vicinity. How do these chemicals ultimately lead to cancer? Well, it first started with the residents awaking to mysterious ash on their cars every morning. The ash soon caused putrid smells which, eventually, the residents became accustomed to. After a while the residents became used to the pollution, unaware of their diminishing health.
With the decline of industries such coal mining and petroleum, many white Americans suffer from environmental bias as well. The decline of industry also brought the decline of the livelihood of those that depended on those jobs.
Flint, Michigan recently made headlines for a water crisis in which Flint changed its water source from Lake Hurton to Flint River, which had major lead contamination. Exposure to lead causes developmental problems in children including impaired cognition, delayed puberty and a variety of behavioral problems. Between 6,000 and 12,000 children where exposed to lead and are now haunted by life-long impending health problems. Coverage of this crisis raised the debate of whether the race and social status of Flint’s residents had to do with this situation.
Flint was once an industrial powerhouse and housed General Motors’ largest plant. The plant downsized in the 1980s, taking the jobs from residents and negatively impacting the livelihood of the city. Many of Flint’s residents live below the national poverty line and over 40% are African American. The state’s actions following the exposure of the contaminated water being pumped into Flint were questionable to say the least, leaving questions about whether the situation’s handling had to do with the racial and socioeconomic demographics of Flint.
So what now?
Laws to protect Americans against environmental bias have long existed. In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed a bill to ensure the goal of achieving environmental protection for all communities. It has been shown that areas of impoverished people have not reaped the benefits since the bill was never enforced. Over 20 years later, we are still battling to enforce these laws in areas where the people aren’t heard. The environmental protection agency (EPA) has a department that is specifically concerned with civil rights and in its 22-year history the office has not found a case of discrimination. Surprised?Environmental racism doesn’t just affect the generation of people living there. Environmental toxins can cause generational damage. The cycle of bias when it comes to the environment in which we are born and raised, or where we play, live, and work perpetuates the oppression of minorities and low-income communities.
Cassandra Bazile is a Graduate Student at the University of Miami, currently pursing a PhD in Microbiology and Immunology. She graduated from Morgan State University in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in Biology and then moved to Boston where she worked at MIT for 3 years. Cassandra has a deep rooted love for science and research. Her Interest Include Women’s Health, Fitness, and Community Outreach.
1. Huffington Post, (2016) “EPA to Weaken Civil Rights Protections Under Obama”. New York, New York.
2. The New York Times. (2016) “A Question of Environmental Racism in Flint”. NEW YORK, NEW YORK. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/22/us/a-question-of-environmental-racism-in-flint.html?_r=0
3. Pollution Issues. “Cancer Alley, Louisiana”. http://www.pollutionissues.com/Br-Co/Cancer-Alley-Louisiana.html
4. Lee, Trymaine. MSNBC. .(2014) “Cance Alley: Big Industry, Big Problems”. http://www.msnbc.com/interactives/geography-of-poverty/se.html
3.“Environmental Racism explained”. Online Video clip. Youtube, 29, Jan 2016.