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What is "Environmental Racism?" And Why Should You Care?

People are inseperable from the land upon which they live.

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If you're unfamiliar with the term, "environmental racism" sounds oxymoronic. How can the environment be racist? Is it being racist against the environment? Ultimately, what do racism and the environment have to do with one another?

Environmental racism is defined as "the placement of low-income or minority communities in the proximity of environmentally hazardous or degraded environments, such as toxic waste, pollution and urban decay," or as "racial discrimination in the development and implementation of environmental policy, especially as manifested in the concentration of hazardous waste disposal sites in or near areas with a relatively large ethnic minority population." The core idea is that when a human minority group is being concurrently harmed with their environment because of institutional action or lack of action, it's environmental racism.

Environmental racism is cordoning off a section of land on an abandoned landfill, surrounded by most of a city's active landfills, and designating it the place to build public housing for an almost entirely black community of returning WWII veterans—which is exactly what happened at Altgeld Gardens in Chicago in 1945. Environmental racism is building enough waste incinerators to burn 1,428 times as much trash, medical waste, and sewage as the rest of the county in a town that is majority black, and continuing to do so as rates of cancer, mortality, and child mortality skyrocket past state averages—which is what happened in Chester, Pennsylvania. Building a majority black city such that the low-income communities, who are almost entirely black, live in the lower-lying and more ecologically vulnerable areas, and failing to provide sufficient relief when a massive hurricane hits, instead letting corporate opportunists take the chance to build privatized institutions like charter schools to replace the destroyed public institutions—this is what happened to New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, and this is a classic example of environmental racism. And as a side note: to this day, none of these three communities have been relocated, detoxified, or otherwise given sufficient aid or reparations for the damages from which they still suffer.

Here's a couple more examples: environmental racism is supplying a majority black city with water from a corrosive river, poisoned by decades of dumping from the auto industry, that contains enough lead to be considered toxic waste by the EPA, and which could be fixed or at least improved by simply adding an anti-corrosive agent which would have only cost the city $100 a day. And environmental racism is failing to act on toxic poisoning of an entire city for two years. Yes, that case is Flint, Michigan, which as of today still does not have clean water. You can bet that if it was Calabasas or Westport or the Upper West Side that didn't have access to clean water, it wouldn't have gone on like this for two weeks, let alone two years.

Last example: when the descendants of those who survived the indigenous genocide in our nation's early history, who are now living on tracts of land called "reservations" that have been set aside for them as a pittance for the atrocities committed and the original lands the indigenous communities were forced out of, are now being forced to defend their sacred lands and drinking water supply with their lives because a corporation has decided an oil pipeline is more important and the government refuses to stop them—this is environmental racism, and it has been happening to the Sioux at Standing Rock in North Dakota for months, thanks to the Dakota Access Pipeline. It is an act of injustice against the people and the land upon which they live that, though this is protected land, the U.S. government is not holding to these protections. It is unjust and inhumane that the county police are militarized, firing water cannons in below-freezing temperatures, shooting rubber bullets and throwing concussion grenades at the water protectors, forcing them to risk life and limb—quite literally, in the case of 21-year-old Sophia Wilansky, who is now undergoing intensive surgeries and may lose her arm due to the violence of the militarized police.

Rumors (in the form of a video by a Sioux woman circulating online in private messages) are now coming out that crop duster planes, meant to spray pesticides on large swaths of land, appear to be flying over the site at Standing Rock (which, due to the protected status, is not permitted). If they are intentionally spraying toxic chemicals on the Sioux water protectors, this is more than unjust or unfair or illegal. This is genocide.

People are inseparable from the land on which they live: to harm a community's water supply, or to willfully ignore the problem, is to harm or allow harm to the people who drink it. To endanger the water people drink in favor of profit, and to violently retaliate when they stand up for their land, is to actively harm the people who drink it. When these groups of people belong to long-oppressed racial or ethnic groups that are today still among the most vulnerable communities in the U.S. for economic, political, and other reasons—this is an act of environmental racism.

Think about the things you're thankful for this weekend. Do they include clean water? Do they include your rights as an American, including the right to assemble and protest? They should, because these are among the principles on which our nation was founded. Now think about the people who have been systemically excluded from these protections—from the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—for all of U.S. history. If these rights aren't extended to everyone, they don't mean anything.

So as Americans, be thankful for the environmental bounty and incredible freedoms we have. And be aware of whom that "we" fails to include.

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