Killer Air: Environmental Racism in Low Income Communities

8/16/20 by Hunter Commins

          Our communities are dying. The killer you ask? Environmental racism. It is evident the United States is riddled with systemic racism that reaches all aspects of our society, and environmental racism is one of the countless examples. The term environmental racism was coined by the Environmental Justice Movement (EJM) in the early 1980s. It is used to describe the unsafe environment caused by the disproportionate number of environmentally hazardous plants in minority and low-income communities. Many environmental and minority activists link this problem to racial injustice and social inequality. So how are these facilities affecting communities? To begin, these communities lack the proper amenities such as parks and outdoor courts, due to sections of neighborhoods being taken up to create space for these factories. If neighborhoods are not destroyed to make room for freeways and easy transportation to the plants, then residents are subject to terrible air quality caused by smog, construction dust, ash, and oil smoke. All of which are classified as known carcinogens by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. As a result of systemic racism in our nation, the majority of those affected are people of color and immigrants. In a study done by the Environmental Protection Agency, the authors state, “results at national, state and county scales all indicate that non-Whites tend to be burdened disproportionately to Whites.” This statement is quite noticeable in Michigan, where according to Laura Pulido, author of “Flint, Environmental Racism, and Racial Capitalism”, 7 out of the 12 cities that were under Emergency Fiscal Management in 2016, had African Americans making up more than fifty percent of the population. Environmental racism is overwhelmingly affecting low-income communities. To solve this issue, goals, such as changing the way the public sees the climate change issue, along with new public policies that protect communities, and activism to fuel this change, need to be implemented

          To stop environmental racism, concrete goals need to be established to lead policy innovation. The first major goal is to have the United States federal government recognize climate change. This simple but monumental acknowledgment would help activists and legislators pass policies to combat the rising CO2 emissions. These environmentally damaging factories that smother poor communities with pollutants would now have strict regulations. This would expectedly decrease the impact they have on nearby towns. The second, and slightly more difficult goal, is to change activists’ agenda from only dealing with climate change to dealing with socioeconomic inequality and then dealing with climate change. Without identifying socioeconomic inequality, environmental racism will never be solved. Large corporations target poor communities because society cares more about what happens to wealthier communities more than districts struggling to stay above the poverty line. If the public outlook is redesigned, the corporations will be forced to clean the air for residents or move to where no one is at risk. 

          After those and other goals are achieved, activists can start looking at public policies. In the case of environmental racism, certain federal policies can be implemented to regulate companies, while state and local governments can enact policies to protect threatened communities. At the federal level, Congress needs to vote on and then carry out the Green New Deal, a bill that fights against climate change while also addressing socio-economic differences and racial injustice. In addition to the Green New Deal, the government needs to stop the attack on the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by the Trump Administration. The NEPA requires businesses to consider environmental repercussions before pursuing projects and also allows public groups and organizations to reflect and criticize projects. The Trump Administration wants to lessen the time public groups have to review plans and undermine the regulations set on companies. This act enables communities to oppose dangerous plants that could compromise the health of their residents. If the federal government allows these revisions, then the safety and health of American communities will be in jeopardy. At the state and local level, policies that protect communities can be put in place. For example, policies that regulate the distance between communities and factories can be created. These policies would require facilities to be a safe distance away so that communities would not be harmed. Each state and town would be able to customize the mandated distances to better fit their neighborhoods and landscape. The calculated distances would include the space needed to create transportation services to the plants so that community space is protected. As previously stated, large corporations target poor communities due to socioeconomic inequality. Oftentimes these communities do not have the resources or money to legally resist the invasion of these wealthy businesses. As a response to this, states can create a policy to change the minimum wage to fifteen dollars an hour. This would help residents of low-income communities protect themselves from unwanted plants and also help them create a better community. For areas that are still unable to afford legal support, pro-bono organizations can help citizens access reputable lawyers that they would otherwise not have access to. 

          Throughout history, activism has been a way for the public to fuel movements and bring about change. The fight to end environmental racism would be no different. While many forms of activism will help contribute to the movement, protesting would be the most effective. Change agents would hold protests and sit-ins at the national and state capitals to pressure legislators to vote yes on policies that would protect communities. Protests at the corporations that are responsible for these hazardous factories would force them to address the issue of environmental racism. The workers of these companies would also hold boycotts to demand new rules to be put in place to defend public health. Photographers, journalists, and media would be enlisted to spread the stories of those who have been personally affected by environmental racism and independently investigate pollution in these towns. With the help of multiple forms of activism, change can be made to protect vulnerable communities.

          Environmental racism disproportionately affects low-income communities. To dismantle this covert form of racism, there needs to be a loud and steady call to action. Our nation’s environmental and racial injustice activists need to create goals, including recognizing climate change and changing activists’ agenda, to ignite a movement. This will pressure federal and state legislators to draft policies such as the Green New Deal and policies that regulate the distance between plants and communities. Finally, activism in the form of protests and educating the public through media coverage need to be established until a permanent change is made.