Sam Sugerman: Environmental racism in America

Wednesday, February 20, 2019 - 2:34pm

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The Michigan Daily

All stories are composed of five basic parts: an exposition, an inciting event, a climax, a resolution and a conclusion. In the United States, there are many ongoing stories related to the injustices faced by minority groups. These forms of injustice range from the rise and fall of the Jim Crow laws, Japanese internment camps and President Donald Trump’s Muslim ban — just to name a few.

Each form of injustice was (and is) rooted in racism, bigotry and xenophobia. Each form of injustice has its own story, and each story is full of characters — protagonists and antagonists alike. These unfolding stories have shaped the history of our country and continue to write our future, as myriad forms of injustice are still prevalent in the very fabric of our society. Many of these issues continue to tear apart our already divided society and any resolution to mitigate these injustices.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “We have flown the air like birds and swum the sea like fishes, but have yet to learn the simple act of walking the earth like brothers.” Humans have put a man on the moon, but cannot figure out how to live together in harmony. Is this due to our inherent self-interest and neglect of altruistic principles? Environmental racism and the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on low socioeconomic minority groups exhibits our apparent inability to reconcile these ideals.

The exposition is multifaceted. Environmental racism is rooted in the continued racial discrimination towards Black people since the end of slavery. Throughout history, people of color have been subject to unfair housing, inequitable zoning policies and limited say in land allocation and use. These factors have cumulatively produced environmental racism that has lead to a myriad of health risks associated with air and water quality.

However, the magnitude of the injustice would not have been understood if not for the exploratory work published in Rachel Carson’s "Silent Spring." The book sparked the environmental movement, lead to the ban of DDT, the amendment and creation of laws concerned with our environment and most importantly the institution of the Environmental Protection Agency, or the EPA — the preeminent regulatory agency dedicated towards environmental policy.

This inciting event involves the most influential protagonist in the fight for racial equality, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr went to Memphis, Tenn. to support the strike of sanitation workers who were not being properly compensated for their dangerous and dirty work. The workers were subject to health concerns from the chemicals in the sewage to the contaminants from the waste. In pursuit of equality, King's actions lead to the establishment of the Clean Water Act and Fair Housing Act, two influential pieces of legislation in curtailing the impact of environmental racism. Memphis was a preeminent example of environmental racism and set the stage for the environmental justice movement by fortifying the connection between issues pertaining to the environment and issues of racial equality.

The climax took place in 1982 as the state of North Carolina planned to relocate 60,000 tons of Polychlorinated Biphenyl (PCB) contaminated soil to the rural Warren County, N.C. — a majority Black community with 24 percent of people living under the poverty line. The PCB landfill was feared to leak and contaminate the community's water and air quality, as PCB is a carcinogenic toxin. However, the people did not have adequate resources to fend for themselves, so they resorted to peaceful protest reminiscent of those encouraged by Martin Luther King, Jr.

The scene was best depicted by an iconic photograph of six Black men lying face up in the middle of a country road as six trucks full of toxic soil are stopped in the distance. The state ultimately took advantage of the community, bypassed the protesting citizens and built the landfill. The inherent racism in the land use brought environmental justice concerns into the national spotlight.

Despite coming to national attention over three decades ago in Warren County, environmental racism and injustice continue to be prevalent in society as more than half of people that live in proximity to a landfill, hazardous waste site or other industrial facility are people of color. In addition, water contamination plagues low-income areas around the country as best exemplified by the lead issues permeating through Flint.

Therefore, while we are confronted with the issue of how to promote a resolution to this issue, we must also ask how we can move forward and close the chapter of environmental racism and injustice.

For starters, we need to force businesses to be more environmentally conscious and decrease the mass production of harmful chemicals. Between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, communities that are predominantly minority and low-income make up “Cancer Alley.” Cancer Alley contains more than 150 petrochemical companies and 17 refineries, all of which take advantage of poor communities and damage their health in exchange for corporate profits.

Just like corporations can greenwash by fabricating their reports, politicians can lie to leverage votes. Therefore, we need to step up come election time and vote for candidates that have a demonstrated interest in environmental issues to support their campaign promises. We cannot have leaders like former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who in 2013, despite the injustices in Louisiana's Cancer Alley, offered Shell a $112 million incentive package with tax exemptions to create a new factory. Our elected leaders should not act in terms of profit. They should serve their constituents’ best interest.

We need to ensure laws already put in place to prevent discrimination are properly put into action. The biggest obstacle towards resolution is the government's neglect to vigorously enforce the laws on the books.

With the Earth hanging on by a thread and on the brink of catastrophic and irreversible change, we need to prompt action and to recognize the far-reaching impacts of our behaviors. We are not fighting another civil rights battle, but we are fighting for our lives as the story of environmental racism continues to tragically unfold. The conclusion must be, then, to eliminate injustices, especially when its main vehicle is environmental catastrophe.

Sam Sugerman can be reached at samsug@umich.edu.