Black lives matter applies to every institution and structure that currently exist in our societies. Currently, we speak of abolishing the police, a structure that historically has roots in slave patrols that maintained the submission of slaves. After slavery was made illegal, it functioned as a way for white people in the South to accuse black people and infringe on their rights. This led to the mass criminalization of black people, whereby simply for being Black they were considered to be dangerous. This discrimination is what we continue to witness today not only in law enforcement in the United States, but around the world.
Although police brutality is the focus of protests sparked by the heinous deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, when we speak about systemic racism we must take into account all the injustices black people are subjected to every day.
Let’s talk about Environmental Racism.
Coined by Reverend Benjamin Chavis in 1987, Environmental Racism refers to the “intentional and unintentional disproportionate imposition of environmental hazards on minorities”. People of color and the poor are far more likely to be exposed to toxic waste facilities, garbage dumps and other forms of pollution that lower their quality of life.
A study by Robert Bullard determined that race was more important that socioeconomic status when predicting the location of hazardous waste facilities in America. He further observes that these decisions often mirror the existing power dynamics in the society, therefore disadvantaging primarily minorities, as they have the least figurative power.
Flint, Michigan is the poster child for such environmental racism. Flint, an area where nearly 60% of residents are Black, suffered from a water supply containing dangerous levels of lead which can affect the heart, kidney and nerves. A report that was later released by the government of Michigan affirmed that systemic racism and implicit bias played a role in the lack of caution exercised and the slow response.
Unfortunately Flint, Michigan is not the only Black community to experience this discrimination.
Louisiana’s impoverished river communities are heavily polluted by the big industries in the area which has lead to mass illness and inexplainable death.
The area has become known as the “Cancer Alley”.
A four part series released by MSNBC titled ‘Geography of Poverty’ analyzes in detail the case of Louisiana. Importantly, it explores the historic routes that have allowed this environmental injustice to happen.
In the South, America’s prosperity was built on slave labour, when slavery was later abolished after the Civil War, much of the region’s wealth went with it as plantations were abandoned. When big industries expanded in the area they were able to purchase the land previously owned by slavers. However, they couldn’t purchase the land passed on by descendants of slaves as there was no official form of ownership that would have enabled the exchange of land.
“many families still live near the plantations their ancestors were enslaved in and now these big oil and gas industries have developed right next to them”
The consequences of this expansion of oil and gas business has been rampant illness along the Mississippi river. This heightened level of sickness is exacerbated by issues Black communities across the country already face: lack of adequate health care, dependency on public transport, food deserts and reduced access to jobs.
What’s more shocking is that the state and the Environmental Protection Agency claim no issues with samples of air, water and soil in the area. They were however testing against short-term standards neglecting to take into account that residents living there don’t live there short-term.
So, why is this happening disproportionately to Black and poor communities?
As mentioned previously, it’s to do with the power dynamics in the country. Those with resources can raise awareness, money and get the attention of the public eye to protect their communities. A sociological phenomenon known as ‘Not in my back yard’ or Nimby explores opposition by residents to developments in their local area. This can include housing developments, infrastructure, rail ways and energy plants to name a few. In the 1970s, middle-class white communities started to increasingly protest these expansions in their local areas. As a consequence, according to Merrill Singer in their book ‘A Companion to the Anthropology of Environmental Health’, these projects were more likely to be moved to poor neighborhoods or neighborhoods of color who lacked the political clout to oppose them.
This amplified the likelihood of black communities existing near hazardous and toxic facilities.
How do we begin to tackle this systemic injustice in the same way that we have started to address it (or at least object it) in our policing?
In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Elizabeth Yeampierre, the co-chair of the Climate Justice Alliance states there must be a just transition that moves away from the global fossil fuel economy, and moves towards local livable ones. She emphasizes the need for a local economy, where power is taken away from big power grids and distributed among communities.
The way to fight environmental injustice and the way to tackle climate change is the same:
The best way to tackle these global issues is recognizing the ways in which they are all interconnected. Racial justice, climate change, gender equality and poverty share the fact that they were caused by a legacy of extraction and exploitation. We took our land for granted and exploited all those we deemed lesser. There is need for a redistribution of power.
Legislation such as the Green New Deal aims to address just that. It’s not just a climate proposal, but rather, it attempts to tackle issues of climate change by also confronting racial discrimination, income inequality and poverty.
Although you can read the proposal here, in summary it recognizes that a transition to renewable energy and energy efficiency would be a source of employment for thousands of people and that it is the duty of the government to help workers in the fossil fuel industries transition to these new professions. Additionally, projects such as transportation and housing should not only maximize energy efficiency but also safety, durability and accessibility for all. Lastly, it maintains that health care, clean air and water, and healthy food should be provided for all, recognizing the link between health and the environment.
This legislation has been dismissed by many, particularly Republicans who favor technological solutions to climate change, as a socialist daydream due to concerns for funding and what to them may seem like an attempt to prioritize a democratic agenda.
I for one believe it’s somewhere to start, especially given the pressing time-stamp we have to tackle climate change according to the IPCC.
Black lives matter is a movement that must be rooted in every sector of our societies. Racism does not only manifest itself in the form of racial slurs and unjust violence towards Black people, but rather it is the way that in every sector White people are given a head start.
Medics study photographs of disease exhibited on white patients, leaving them ill-equipped to diagnose and treat people of color. Our justice system and police are far more likely to convict a Black person than a white one. And climate change will hit vulnerable communities first and hardest because of the multitude of other stresses that affect their capacity to adapt.
There is no great equalizer. The advantages we are born with will impact the ways we experience everything in our lives, from the air we breath, to the food we eat, to the water we drink. Just because something should be the same for everybody does not mean that it is, let’s not forget that.