History, unfortunately, seems to repeat itself. When we say this, we really mean that we never learn from our mistakes. Last week, the Ford School of Public Policy held a policy talk on Flint’s water crisis. A panel of community leaders and a member of the governor’s task force discussed the array of injustices Flint experienced and continues to experience. A member of the panel, E. Hill De Loney, the executive director of the Flint Odyssey House Health Awareness Center, said something that’s stuck with me the past few days: “There’s not a race problem in America. There is, however, a racism problem in America.”

The United States prides itself on a unique tapestry of cultures and backgrounds and a sense of equality tying them all together. As much as we want to believe this is an accurate portrayal of the country, it isn’t — and we all know it. Embedded inequalities based on race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status are institutionalized and systematic. Minorities in the country are among the poorest populations. The danger of not addressing inequalities is that people in privileged positions may take advantage of such inequalities. Just as we saw discrimination that intertwined people and the environment in the Flint crisis, we see it again in the hills of North Dakota.

In American history classes, we learned, in a very peripheral way, about the historic discrimination of Native Americans, characterized by the systematic relocation of tribes westward and onto isolated reservations. This has led to the present 29.2 percent poverty rate of Native Americans, the highest of any racial group in the United States. The newly intensified situation at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation is a testament to their enduring hardships and yet another example of environmental racism in the United States. Environmental justice is defined as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” In Flint, this type of justice was non-existent. In Standing Rock, it still is nowhere to be found.

The Sioux are part of a Native American tribe living in the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota. Energy Transfers Partners, a natural gas company, is constructing the Dakota Access Pipeline, an underground pipeline near sacred Sioux land. The $3.8 billion pipeline would transfer massive amounts of oil between states in a supposedly safer way. However, the pipeline threatens tribal rights as construction is near their reservation and sacred burial sites. The pipeline also poses the threat of water contamination to the Sioux people living on and near the land. State officials have assured the environmental safety of the pipeline. However, there have been 220 pipeline spills in 2016 alone, as well as one in North Dakota just three months ago, and a pipeline explosion in Alabama this week. The Sioux people and environmental activists have been protesting the finishing of this pipeline for the past five months, yet there has been no agreement made to protect their cultural and environmental rights.

Just this weekend, the situation intensified as police arrested at least 142 protesters and forced others out of land they had occupied in protest. The sad irony of this situation is that it only perpetuates the racial injustice Native Americans have faced since Christopher Columbus arrived in America. The limited land that tribes are now entitled to on reservations, which was allocated by the federal government to begin with, is again threatened. I mean, what century are we in? The same history lesson we learned about Anglo-Saxon colonists pushing tribes westward and taking their land is reminiscent of what is happening now. An effort to make money and expand a business is valued over the environmental concerns of a people and their culture — more specifically, the concerns of a minority group. It sounds unfair doesn’t it? To take advantage of an already disadvantaged group? Well, history shows it happens often.

Racism intertwined with environment is at the heart of both situations. The outright disregard for the people of Flint due to their races and their economic statuses resulted in a health crisis that to this day has not been solved. A question commonly posed to illustrate the environmental injustice of the city is this: Would this have happened in a predominantly white or subsequently richer city? Probably not. The delay in government action and the neglect officials showed for Flint’s concerns would not have occurred 50 miles down the road in Ann Arbor. At Standing Rock, we can ask a similar question: Would an oil pipeline be constructed near or under a cemetery or church in Ann Arbor or near the city at all? I think you know the answer.

Similar to Flint, the people of Standing Rock, who would actually live with this pipeline, were barely consulted — if at all — when it came to the major project. According to Seattle Times reporter Lynda Mapes, the tribe has said it was not adequately involved in the construction decisions and were not even consulted until after the construction started. In a press release last month, the Sioux people expressed that “the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did not hold meaningful consultation with our Tribe before approving construction of this pipeline. They did not conduct a survey of cultural resources.” This highlights a huge flaw in U.S. policy making. Entering a community, whether to fix a problem or unknowingly create one, is dangerous when you have no understanding or consideration of the people who live there.

A solidarity movement on Facebook has drawn more attention and hopefully advocacy for the environmental and cultural rights at stake. Situations like the one in North Dakota have the power to shape future relationships between groups and policies on environmental protection. The current disregard for and lack of true consultation with the people of Standing Rock cannot be tolerated any longer.

A community’s right to a safe environment is a human right, as is cultural respect. Both are at risk at Standing Rock. The United States has a responsibility to take care of our own, yet we allow the people who have the fewest economic resources to be taken advantage of. There must be a compromise between the Sioux Tribe and Energy Transfers Partners that doesn’t take advantage of the ingrained inequalities of a minority. By playing on inequalities we perpetuate them. If we don’t change something now, if we don’t start a more understanding and compassionate approach to policy, then we run the risk of letting history repeat itself. Standing Rock is a test for the country — and I know we can do better than this.

Anu Roy-Chaudhury can be reached at anuroy@umich.edu

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