What is Environmental Racism?
KF - Writer
It is not recent news that BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) communities are disproportionately impacted by poor environmental regulation and left to fend for themselves against enormous fossil fuel corporations. A study carried out by the EPA in 2018 found that “black Americans are subjected to higher levels of air pollution than whites, while a 2011 study found that communities of color and low-income populations are disproportionately exposed to chemical releases”.
Numerous studies have found levels of air pollution to be worse in areas populated mostly by ethnic minorities. Poor air quality does not just make air unpleasant to breathe, it can also increase the severity of suffering for asthmatics, making a serious attack far more likely. Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, who is a “World Health Organization advocate for health and air quality” lost her daughter Ella in 2013 to a severe asthma attack which has since been “linked to spikes in air pollution”. This case brought a modern spotlight to the immediate dangers of air pollution. Air pollution has also been linked to several diseases which already disproportionately affect black communities such as diabetes, heart attack and stroke. The double-edged sword of health issues and high levels of deprivation mean that these communities often lack the tools necessary to fight against these injustices. Those worst affected can rarely afford lawyers and publicity campaigns to compete with Fortune 500 polluters.
A stark contrast can be made between these heavy polluters and the difficulties of installing wind turbine farms. Wind farms are notoriously controversial because they mildly disturb the view of middle-class white communities who occupy the country homes surrounded by the necessary wide tracts of land required for wind turbine operation. They are also responsible for the tiny fraction of bird deaths which are not overwhelmingly attributed to house cats and window panes. Yet oil pipelines which are vehemently protested against and practically awarded celebrity status for the several weeks that the global community maintains interest are still approved even though they threaten access to clean water for minority communities. The mild discomfort of white communities sees these wind developments shot down time and time again but it’s all forgivable because white people recycle and tut at those who can’t afford to shop in the organic range. We put a green heart on our Instagram bios and share tweets about how awful it is that some people will have to live near the new oil pipeline. Then we go on with our day and never think about it again.
Where can we see this environmental racism in action? One only needs to look as recently as 2014 to the economically engineered catastrophe in Flint, Michigan which left the majority black community without clean, drinkable water for years and has yet to be fully resolved. It would be hard to imagine this human rights violation to have been allowed to occur in an affluent, predominantly white community. Take a moment to imagine you couldn’t drink from your own kitchen tap because the water contained deadly amounts of lead. Then imagine that adequate testing wasn’t carried out when it should have been and so you drank the water unaware that you would now suffer the long-term effects of lead poisoning for the rest of your life. Now finally imagine that the whole world found out about this issue and the terrible health implications for your community and… nothing really happened about it for several more years.
One recent study found that just “9% of UK students in higher education studying direct feeder subjects to environment professions identify as non-white minorities”. Last year the Guardian reported that “according to the 2014 Green 2.0 report, people of color were 36% of the US population, but they made up no more than about 12% of environment organizations studied. A 2019 update to the report found that diversity actually got worse over the past few years.” It’s no wonder that the environmental sector is so predominately white when BAME communities have such a negative relationship with their natural environment. For these communities the air, the water and the land are vectors of pollution which shorten life spans and are a constant reminder that their communities are collateral damage to big polluters. This is what makes it so important to include BAME voices in environmental battles. Representation doesn’t just matter in the movies, it has to bring voices to the table in real life too. Progressive politicians who campaign for green deals must target improvement in the most vulnerable communities first and foremost. Environment is the first steppingstone which allows other factors to fall into place, how can BAME communities be expected to focus on education, economic growth and self-improvement when they are still battling to have clean drinking water and breathable air?
In the midst of the Black Lives Matter protests there is a chorus of voices tutting about the spread of CoronaVirus. Those moaning will gladly ignore the swathes of people causing gridlock on the roads to Devon and Cornwall in the weeks before and the tourists flocking to Durdle Door at the first sign of sun. Before judging the protestors it’s worth noting that areas of poor air quality and areas of economic deprivation (both disproportionately BAME) have the highest rates of infection and have been impacted the worst by this disease. Weak environmental regulation has been a contributing factor to the higher infection rates studied in BAME communities as it lays a bedrock of ill health to begin. As discussed earlier, a poor quality environment increases the risk of several other diseases such as diabetes which make a person a ‘high risk’ patient if they develop CoronaVirus. With climate change threatening to increase the number of infectious diseases impacting the population, it will once again be BAME communities who will be the worst hit. Police brutality may have been the catalyst for this outcry however the Black Lives Matter movement is about so many even deeper issues.
Under the lens of environmental racism the tragic mantra of ‘I can’t breathe’ takes on an even deeper meaning.