Environmental racism was one of the most surprising concepts I encountered during my undergrad. It had just never occurred to me that where and how we polluted our environment would be intentionally arranged to affect some racial communities more than others.
After the Second World War, for example, Chicago kindly provided African American veterans the opportunity to live in a housing community built atop an abandoned landfill. After serving their country and surviving the war these veterans came home to Altgeld Gardens Homes, a community that would have significantly high cancer rates because of exposure to toxic chemicals.
Then, in the 1970s and 80s, there was the Warren County PBC Landfill case, when the state of North Carolina decided to bury soil that had been contaminated with toxic polychlorinated biphenyls in Warren Country, a community with primarily black residents and a much lower income rate than the rest of the state.
With the very likely possibility of their drinking water being contaminated by the toxic material, residents, civil rights groups, environmental leaders, and clergymen all joined together to protest the state’s decision…
…and then got arrested.
According to the Commission for Racial Justice, conducted in 1987, “people of colour were twice as likely as Whites to live in a community with a commercial hazardous waste facility and three times as likely to have multiple facilities. ”
While there have been some changes in environmental standards since then, communities of colour living in the States continue to be affected by environmental racism.
There’s the more recent example of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated so many homes of black families that it led to this famous moment.
Not only was the response to the disaster slow, but “institutionalized racial segregation of neighborhoods” meant that black families were living in the areas of lower elevation most affected by the hurricane.
In fact, many communities of colour in America are still affected by institutionalized racial segregation today. In places like L.A. and D.C., for example, waste facilities are still grouped around areas where people of colour live.
For example, at Fort Chipewyan, downstream from the oil sands tailing ponds, “Cancer occurrence increased significantly with participant employment in the oilsands and with the increased consumption of traditional foods and locally caught fish.”
Likewise, in Canada’s “Chemical Valley” the Aamjiwnaang First Nation have been experiencing “unusually low male birth rate and slew of other reported health issues”.
Cloud Makers from Rachel Deutsch on Vimeo.
There’s also the problem with access to clean water on many reserves. According to Health Canada data, “two-thirds of all First Nation communities in Canada have been under at least one drinking water advisory at some time in the last decade”. Some have been forced to boil their tap water for over 20 years.
Often, when this issue comes up in a social discussion, settler-Canadians will blame reserve councils for not handling the issue first hand. What these Canadians don’t realize is that reserve governments are often caught between Federal and Provincial red tape when trying to resolve these issues.
The problem of environmental racism here in Canada may have been one of the contributing factors for the massive liberal sweep we saw in this year’s election. Our new Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, was one of the only candidates who promised to address the conditions on reserves, and in response, First Nations communities came out to the polls in droves.
Environmental racism is still a formidable problem both in Canada and the States, yet it continues to be a concept that many people haven’t even heard about. As scholars and activists work to draw attention to these issues, one can only hope that those of us who aren’t directly affected might finally start to care.