Environmental Justice Is Racial Justice
Updated: Sep 10, 2020
Environmental injustice is so ingrained into American life that it’s just as normal as the air we breathe. In 2020 alone, the Trump administration has enacted 64 environmental rollbacks, and continuing to allow the other thirty-four rollbacks, which includes revoking California’s power to set stricter tailpipe emission standards and loosening standards for toxic emissions for major industrial polluters.
A study titled “Inequity in consumption of goods and services adds to racial–ethnic disparities in air pollution exposure” has shown that White Americans experience better air quality than their Black and Hispanic counterparts. An example of environmental racism would be redlining. Redlining is the practice of denying people of color credit or access to certain real estate, and it has forced communities of color into homes that are considered less desirable in order to “protect” White neighborhoods. To this day, redlining is instilled in many banking and real estate businesses, preventing Black people from living in an area without toxins in the air or not in a flood zone.
The Trump administration plans to reverse a total of 100 environmental rules, risking thousands of more lives. One of the most impactful setbacks has been the repeal of the Obama-era Clean Power Plan. The Clean Power Plan limited the amount of greenhouse gas emissions which benefits Black communities because it restricts the amount of toxins in the atmosphere, and it contributes to a global goal of combating climate change. In St. Gabriel, Louisiana, a majority Black and Brown community, toxic air has polluted their community so much, it has been nicknamed “Cancer Valley.” In Chester, Pennsylvania, a predominantly poor and Black community, they hold the largest collection of infectious waste facilities in the country.
There are countless other situations of environmental justice that have largely been ignored like Flint, Michigan, where there is not easy access to clean water due to toxic waste dumps in their community. It is communities like these that are known as a sacrifice zone, a low income community that has been severely damaged environmentally and economically due to unwanted land usage. It’s policies that reverse greenhouse gas emissions and prevent companies from building oil wells close to neighborhoods that attempt to protect Black communities. Today, there are websites such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation or Blue Zones where you can plug in your zip code and even see your life expectancy because environmental racism has been tracked and analyzed for decades.
Some policy reversals have even limited the government’s own power when it comes to regulating harm done by the fossil fuel industry. The fossil fuel industry will put profit over people, as they have done since their creation. The Scientific American reported in 2015 that big oil companies have known of the damage they cause the planet and people since 1977, which will only continue to disproportionately affect BIPoC communities.
After pulling the United States from the Paris Climate Accord, President Trump has shown that his priorities do not lie with environmental protection and thus the protection of Black communities across the United States. The current administration is also no stranger to energy development, supporting projects including oil and gas drilling in national parks. Even in Trump’s first year in office, several controversial oil pipelines were approved such as the Keystone XL Pipeline which would extend through eight states and readily make more fossil fuels available thus, heating the atmosphere. Efforts to fight rising global temperatures around the world will be curbed with projects like the Keystone XL Pipeline.
America’s exploitation of natural resources from oil to water have given aid to the economy but has recklessly destroyed the environment, forcing low income families to face the fossil fuel industry’s consequences. This has been happening since the colonization of Indigenous lands. White people have been deciding the fate of Indigenous peoples and communities of color for too long. Even the world of climate activism has largely been led by White faces. In a 2014 study by the Green Diversity Initiative, the organization found that only 12 percent of employees at nongovernmental environmental organizations are made up of people of color. Climate justice touches on plenty of issues, but climate justice includes fighting for the right for Black communities to breathe. People are suffering from asthma and other respiratory diseases, many of which are caused by fossil fuel plants in the surrounding area.
Today, the people that are already facing numerous inequalities are the first to be affected by disasters and the last to be protected. Elizabeth Yeampierre, Co-Chair of the Climate Justice Alliance, said in an interview with Yale School of Environment that you cannot treat climate issues without treating racism because they are so systemic. The same communities that are heavily hit by COVID-19 are the same communities that are most impacted by police brutality and weather events. Historically, you cannot look at extreme events like Hurricane Katrina without recognizing the government’s neglect of the poor, Black communities. There were 971 deaths in Louisiana from Hurricane Katrina, and over half of those fatalities were Black.
These rollbacks and setbacks will only further perpetuate the idea that Black communities are deemed worthy to be sacrificed. There are normalized systemic issues making it harder for Black people to breathe, and that is why the Black Lives Matter movement extends to the Black lives that are dying from the toxic consequences of the fossil fuel industries pumping out poisonous air.
Existing inequalities that Black, Indigenous, and other people of color face are only going to be exacerbated through climate change. The scope of the Black Lives Matter movement includes the people who are living in flood zones, constantly threatened of being displaced. It includes the families who are inhaling toxins each and every day, who may develop and suffer from respiratory conditions. If we, as a people, do not step up for the Black lives that this country has forced on the front lines, then we failed as a nation. Black people have not been given equal opportunity in jobs, in buying houses, or even in the air they breathe.
Annie Leonard, the Executive Director of Greenpeace, a non-governmental environmental organization, says it best in an article titled “Why Greenpeace Speaks Out on Racial Justice.”
“The systems of power and privilege that destroy the environment also strip vulnerable communities of their humanity-- and too often, their lives.”
If the United States transitions into a clean economy, it would become more of a just one. Decarbonizing the economy will not happen unless the government also addresses the structural racism in our country. Racism was not the cause of climate change, but it absolutely perpetuates it.
The connection is clear-- racial justice is connected to climate justice, and we must act now.