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Environmental racism: an overlooked facet of climate crisis

By Rider University Eco-Rep, Kayelena Brimage


Originally Published: October 13, 2021

If I were to ask you, what are the tools that every human needs to survive? You would likely say food, water, air and shelter. What if I told you that millions of people of color in low-income communities do not have convenient and affordable access to healthy food options, clean water and air and safe housing? Contaminated water in Flint, Michigan. Black Snow in Pahokee, Florida. “Cancer Alley” in New Orleans, Louisiana. These are all examples of environmental racism, a form of systemic racism where communities of color are disproportionately burdened with man-made health hazards through policies and practices which force them to live near sources of toxic waste such as landfills, power plants and/or work on the frontline positions that expose them to hazardous conditions on a regular basis.

The COVID-19 crisis, among other impacts, has become an example of environmental racism by magnifying racial inequality and hitting underserved communities the hardest. Residents in these communities have been contracting and dying from the disease at disproportionate rates. Black communities are overrepresented as frontline workers and face an increased risk of exposure. According to an early study done by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, when living near a power plant or landfill, residents are at risk for COVID-19 and are more likely to contract it. When breathing in industrial toxins, there is more of a possibility to catch COVID-19. Communities of color experience significantly higher rates of exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs), which exist in toxic waste and air pollution and have been linked to higher rates of diabetes for Black people. Contracting COVID-19 on top of being diabetic will create worse complications.

You may be wondering why people don’t just leave these areas if they live near such hazardous waste.

Property values are low in urban, industrial areas, which makes them more affordable. It is also what is already being sold to Black communities. Many policies have acted alongside financial factors to sell these more dangerous, hazardous, low-cost areas to people of color yet keep them far away from wealthier, predominantly white neighborhoods. According to Casey Berkovitz, the senior communications associate at the Century Foundation, wealth disparities have allowed white Americans to buy homes while the forces of segregation have, in many cases, prevented Black Americans from doing the same. Leaving communities of color in areas that face greater environmental harms and are more vulnerable to natural disasters and residential segregation creates systemic barriers that make it harder for individuals to move to less environmentally harmful areas.

“Working as an essential worker with Waste Management during the shutdown from the pandemic was really scary, but I had to work to keep the lights on in the house. I was one of the very fortunate people who luckily was not out of a job even though I was on the front line of a very serious pandemic,” Waste Management worker James Brimage said.

It is important to educate people who are not living in these polluted areas and work toward changing a system that has unfairly impacted communities of color for centuries. It’s time to pave a new path, one that allows people of color to build generational wealth and not be kept back by the system.

We need environmental justice because it is a basic human right that allows everyone to cast important decisions about their lives. Without this, many people are made victims of the plans and ambitions of others.

“Everyone should be treated equally, but we all know that hasn’t been the case. What is going to impact the lives of so many people is us. We are the change and we are the generation of change, and it needs to start in communities like Flint who need our help fighting against these powerful companies,” said senior elementary education major Ellie Hyland.

Over the last few years, Rider has made a concerted effort to elevate conversations related to social justice issues. Rider Broncs’ Environmental Social Justice Team (B.E.S.T.) is a new service-learning program that explores the laws, regulations and policies that contribute to environmental racism in local communities surrounding our campus and around the world. For more information about this program, email service@rider.edu.

As Barack Obama once said, “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”

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