by Deborah Smith

Poisoned tap water in Flint, Michigan. Toxic waste dumps in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. A town in China where 80% of children have been poisoned by old computer parts. What do these things have in common? 

All are egregious examples of environmental racism, a form of systemic racism whereby communities of colour are disproportionately burdened with health hazards through policies and practices that force them to live in proximity to sources of toxic waste and emitters of airborne particulate matter. It is the placement of people into environmentally hazardous areas or, conversely, the placement of environmental hazards into areas with high number of minority individuals and/or economically destitute populations. As a result, these communities suffer greater rates of health problems attendant on hazardous pollutants. 

A very recent example of environmental racism can be found in the predominantly black city of Flint, Michigan. Here, water was poisoned with dangerous levels of lead. Instead of accepting the problem and finding solutions, local and federal government entities actually tried to cover it up at first. The Flint scandal showed the American people and the world that access to clean water in the U.S. is not always a given. It showed that the testing methods available are flawed, and need to be fixed, and that sometimes the people who are paid to protect us don’t always work in our best interests.

The discriminatory housing policy throughout the U.S. has forced people of colour into the same neighbourhoods, and racist lending practices meant land in those neighbourhoods was worth less just because minorities resided there. This made the land ripe for polluting industries, which need large spaces for their facilities and were able to get local buy-ins in part by arguing they created jobs. Moreover, the companies that owned and operated these facilities knew that minority groups largely lacked the political power to stop them. 
Of course, those with wealth and political clout do best and have the money to buy bottled water or move house. The poor cannot. 

If we’re ever going to achieve any form of equality, then environmental racism must be addressed.