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National Opinion

Human Rights for Whom?: America’s Longstanding Commitment to Environmental Racism

Drip. Drip. Drip. Through damaged pipes in Flint, Michigan, water flows. Brown water. While their stories are no longer in the headlines, the people of Flint remember that their government has abandoned them every time they turn on the faucet. With lead levels so high that filtration is rendered ineffective, Flint is still facing water quality issues today: the city-wide water purification advisory was still in effect at the end of 2019. 

Bad taste and discoloration are the least of their worries: lifelong learning disabilities are a real possibility for children and infants who consumed the water, and 115 people have died from an abnormal form of pneumonia caused by bacteria in the city’s damaged pipes.

As award-winning activist LeeAnne Walters recalled in an interview with The Guardian, “I was an ordinary citizen compelled to take action after watching my children break out in rashes, scream in agony from taking a bath, [have] unexplained illnesses, [and lose] their hair— [all while] being told the problem was specific to my house even though the same things were happening to children all over Flint.” 

The Michigan state government’s slow response to complaints about lead contamination and the fact that city officials knew about the risk of poisoning are egregious examples of negligence. But race was rarely, if ever, factored into the equation by authorities—even though Flint has a majority-black population and the nation’s highest poverty rate according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Flip through the 274 pages of emails released by former Governor Rick Snyder, and you will find no mention of race. The contamination affects people black and white alike, but Flint’s crisis adds another chapter to the ever-continuing story of environmental racism in America. 

The term environmental racism signals the disproportionate impact of air, water, and soil pollution on black people, a consequence of the segregation and poverty that relegated them to industrialized environments. The lack of respect for black life specifically manifested in the widespread practice of dumping waste in primarily black neighborhoods. As Dr. Robert Bullard, the father of environmental justice, stated in an interview with The Guardian, “between the 1930s and 1978, 82% of all waste in Houston [was] dumped in black neighborhoods, even though only 25% of the population was black.”

In Flint and beyond, the impact of environmental injustice falls heavily on the shoulders of people of color. According to an Environmental Protection Agency report released by the Trump administration in February 2018, people of color are still much more likely to live near polluters. Bad air in, bad air out. As they inhale, they take in the smog, the soot, the fumes, the oil smoke, ash, and construction dust. And asthma, high blood pressure, heart attacks, and premature deaths await them. 

In clear, unambiguous language, the United Nations General Assembly declared a human right to water and sanitation and even went as far as to say that clean drinking water is essential to realizing all human rights. And yet, the U.S. abstained from the vote, an unsurprising move given this nation’s historic commitment to environmental racism—a tradition that began much earlier than the 21st century, or even the 20th. 

The colonial project so central to this country’s genesis provides ample evidence of how the U.S. has historically weaponized the environment against communities of color. The genocide committed against Native American communities went beyond killing men, women, and children. In burning crops and slaughtering buffalo, colonists sought to sever the ties between indigenous peoples and their life-sustaining lands. The project of erasure was furthered by a federal government that forced them to live on land deemed to be worthless. 

And the systematic targeting of tribal land persists. Set squarely within the crosshairs of corporations and the U.S. government, tribal lands are notable targets as sites for incinerators, landfills, and nuclear waste storage facilities. The feelings of entitlement to the land and resources of Native American peoples that animated the settlement of North America live on. When oil workers and miners come to reservations, rape victimization and murders of indigenous women arrive with them. 

And the United States protects the offenders, conveniently placing them out of the scope of tribal jurisdiction. Under a 1978 Supreme Court decision, tribal authorities cannot prosecute or arrest non-native men who assault Native American women on reservations. This would not be the last time that the U.S. government turned its back on people.

Through the flooded streets of New Orleans in 2005, black bodies flowed. And federal authorities turned a blind eye because it didn’t matter. Their lives, their pain, their suffering didn’t matter. Shortly after Hurricane Katrina, ABC News and the Washington Post poll found that 71 percent of African Americans thought that New Orleans would have been “better prepared” if it were a “wealthier city with more whites.” Similarly, 76 percent said the federal government would have “responded faster.” 

Rather than standing in solidarity with vulnerable populations uniquely impacted by the hurricane throughout the South, President George W. Bush visited Biloxi, Mississippi, acting as comforter-in-chief to a mainly white community. In front of the wreckage of Senator Trent Lott’s home, he stood, pledging to rebuild it—the home of a segregationist. When the public outcry rose to a fever pitch and his approval ratings took a hit, he made more trips to the South—and got some photo-ops with black people, of course. 

The torrential rain and winds of Hurricane Katrina did not discriminate: black and white and rich and poor were affected. Yet the federal government’s lackluster response to the needs of African Americans magnified the built-in racial inequalities in New Orleans. The racism made apparent in this crisis was not the product of malice or prejudice, but structural social practices and policies. Segregation and housing discrimination forced black people to live in poor neighborhoods more vulnerable to flood damage. Additionally, the government failed to maintain infrastructure and create organized evacuation plans—setting the stage for a catastrophe just waiting to happen. 

Natural disasters rub salt in the open wound of race relations in America. Disasters of a different kind are brought into sharp focus—the wealth gap, institutional racism, generational chains that can’t be shaken off. In these moments, we can see that some lives are valued more than others. 

In facing the current climate crisis, we must not forget how systematic oppression and environmental racism render certain groups vulnerable. Indigenous peoples, the Global South, the impoverished, and people of color must be at the center of our attention. For far too long, we have been relegated to the margins. Our lives matter.