April 2022: Environmental Racism in the US

Hello, Potatoes! Welcome to April, and we hope you’re having a wonderful spring so far! 🌱🌸🌞

For these three months, we will be focusing on intersectional environmentalism, a view of climate justice relating it to other social-justice causes it’s intertwined with. For example, climate change can further inequality, and political agendas can prevent the measures we need to stop the climate crisis from worsening. This month, we’ll be focusing on environmental racism in the US; in May, we’ll move on to worldwide examples; and in June, we’ll wrap up with ways other social-justice causes relate to the environment, what this means for our future, and what we can do. Although these months may look a bit different in terms of what the emails are composed of and ways to help, with more learning opportunities, we think these issues are just as important to know about!

We also want to note that we are mostly white and are not speaking from direct experience, nor have we been directly impacted, so we encourage you to learn more about this issue from POC (people of color) writers and teachers, especially those who have experienced environmental racism. As always, we’ve compiled some resources, and please contribute your own!

For some background, here’s a description of intersectional environmentalism by Lund University: “An intersectional analysis of climate change illuminates how different individuals and groups relate differently to climate change, due to their situatedness in power structures based on context-specific and dynamic social categorisations.” In short, climate change affects us all differently based on our social positions. As Damien Barr said, “We are in the same storm, but not in the same boat.” We’re all facing the climate crisis, but it doesn’t affect us equally. Environmental racism fits right into intersectional environmentalism! It’s a term coined by Benjamin Chavis, who (according to Wikipedia) defines it as “racial discrimination in environmental policy making, the enforcement of regulations and laws, the deliberate targeting of communities of color for toxic waste facilities, the official sanctioning of life-threatening presence of poisons and pollutants in our communities, and the history of excluding people of color from leadership of the ecology movements.”

And here’s a video explaining how BLM and environmental justice are connected.

Wealthy countries (and within them the people in the wealthiest 10%) contribute most to climate change but are least affected by it. (We’ll talk more about this on a global scale next month, but this month, we’ll go over examples in the US.) Hazardously polluting facilities are more likely to be built in and near neighborhoods occupied by POC and low-income people. Pollution is a major cause of health complications and death, and due to unconscious bias, it can also lead people to think of such neighborhoods as dirty and polluted — and therefore think badly of their inhabitants — without ever considering who is to blame for the pollution. This town is one example. Wealthier people also often consume more resources through buying and wasting more (as well as conspicuous consumption) but are more easily able to evade the consequences of climate change.

A local instance is the Flint water crisis. The Flint water crisis began in 2014, when Flint (a lower-income, mostly Black city near Ann Arbor) switched their water source from the Detroit water supply to the Flint river to cut costs. However, the river water wasn’t treated and led to corrosion in the existing pipes, causing lead to be leached into the water. This exposed the 100,000 residents and 9,000 kids under 6 (the most affected) to high levels of lead. Lots of water and water filters (which filter out up to 99% of lead) were donated at the time, which helped in the short term but certainly didn’t solve the problem. Most of the pipes have finally been replaced and other measures have been taken, after years, but the water crisis has caused massive harm to Flint and its residents.

During Hurricane Katrina (2005), evacuation from New Orleans (another largely Black city) was delayed and not made possible for everyone in the area, and emergency rescue teams were held off for days because of the US and local governments’ negligence at the time due to racial prejudice, leading to almost 2,000 deaths. And though hurricanes occur naturally, due to rising temperatures, they have increased in number, size, and destructiveness, likely true for Katrina. New Orleans is also more vulnerable to floods and hurricanes in the future because of rising sea levels. It used to have a much bigger buffer of wetlands, but much of that has been destroyed by humans. 

There is also the issue of Indigenous land rights (which we’ll cover more next month). The US has a history of disregarding treaties with Indigenous nations and taking their land, long after colonization was assumed to be over (which it isn’t at all). Three of the numerous examples are Line 5, Standing Rock, and Line 3. In addition to having terrible environmental and health consequences, these pipelines are being built on land belonging to Indigenous nations, often despite their refusal. This can be damaging to the citizens’ health and livelihoods, as well as that of the wildlife, and perpetuates the injustice that has been going on since colonists arrived in the Americas. This video shows a personal story of pollution on a reservation. Anti-protest laws often target Indigenous land protectors, and oil companies often fund politicians, leading them to protect those companies.

Finally, environmental policy can be biased by a variety of things. Fossil-fuel companies often fund campaigns, leading to a conflict of interest, and a disturbingly large number of politicians conveniently deny the existence of climate change. Politicians are also disproportionately white, wealthy, and male (and thus less likely to be affected by climate change). But since most Americans are concerned about climate change and think the government should do more, the people protecting harmful companies try to prevent people (especially minorities and thus people most affected by climate change) from voting. This is why we must vote for and support people who will prioritize people and the environment over profit!!
The problems in our world are often more related than we think, and if we learn about them, we as potatoes will be on our way to overcoming them!!! Here are this month’s checklist and resources, and as always, please share additional information! Be a potato!! 🥔

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