Environmentalism holds the same racial biases as all other portions of American society. While caring for the environment is not relegated to white Americans, the overwhelming majority of the environmental movement has been led by them, as they hold the most political capital. Many points in the American Environmentalism movement have reflected deep bias against people of color and low-income communities, as they face the highest proportion of environmental effects. As new policies arise, there must be a conscious recognition of racial disparity. Environmental issues are deeply rooted in social issues, and treating the environment as something removed from race allows racist policies to remain.
While the bulk of environmental policy was passed alongside the civil rights movement, these two movements did not combine forces until decades later. The most famous environmental policies and struggles that set the tone for American Environmentalism reflect a largely white and affluent populus. That is not to say that only wealthy white people care about the planet, yet their voices were the only ones being heard. People of color and impoverished communities are disproportionately affected by climate change and pollution but struggle to have their voices heard.
Environmental racism reveals systemic and hidden biases in our environmental policies. The first American “environmentalists” were all white men who focused their work on protecting land for themselves and others like them. As the environmental movement grew in the latter half of the twentieth century, mainstream environmentalism remained white and upper-middle class. Many environmental policies can be tied to systemic racism, either in the way the policy ignores people of color or the way the policy actively harms them.
What policies pass reflect who politicians are listening to. In most cases, white people have the most political capital. They can make bold claims and be persistent in their push for policies, without much risk. The end result often hurts people of color and low-income communities two-fold; their activism is ignored, and the pollution is moved to their neighborhoods.
Our environmental issues are multi-faceted and interdisciplinary. In the past, we have approached environmental issues absolutely. However, environmental issues are more often social issues, revealing power structures along racial and economic lines. Who has the right to pollute? Who has the right not to be polluted? Most of the time, those with more political and economic capital can afford to live in accordance with their environmental values. Those with less power suffer from higher rates of pollution and the health issues that come with them. African Americans must face 56% more pollution than they produce, while white Americans face 17% less than they produce. This does not reflect a difference in pollution, but a difference in distribution. White Americans have the luxury of polluting the environment without having to face the consequences. Through years of systemic environmental racism, POC communities have suffered the brunt of irresponsible environmental actions. Unfortunately, whenever they have spoken up about it, they often went unheard.
To see the difference in political power along racial lines, we only need to look at two of the most famous environmental health crises in America: Love Canal, NY and Flint, Michigan. One was the story of how a group of white women was able to raise national alarms about toxic waste; another is an ongoing story of how some African Americans are struggling to drink clean water.
In 1978, a strange set of birth defects and health issues arose in a small town in New York called Love Canal. The name may reflect the peace-loving sentiment of the 1960s and 70s’ environmental movement, but what was actually happening was much more sinister. The small community was sitting on a toxic waste dump, and after several wet winters, the toxins began seeping into the town’s water and infecting the inhabitants. The chemicals were known carcinogens improperly disposed of years before by a negligent chemical company. As the health issues became harder to ignore, a group of working-class, white women rallied their cries to ask for help. They were heard–by President Carter nonetheless. That same year, 239 families were relocated. By 1981, all the remaining Love Canal residents were relocated.
The Love Canal Disaster was a national tragedy and a landmark in the environmental movement. The women who pushed for action were met with discouragement, but they soon saw a response on a national level. The disaster was tragic but met with relatively swift action. Many tribute Love Canal as one of the first wins for grassroots activism, yet it was a win for white activists only.
Thirty-six years later, news from Flint, Michigan reported high levels of lead in the town’s water supply. After switching from the Detroit water system to the Flint River to save money, Flint’s residents experienced numerous health issues from poisonous water. The water in the Flint River, after decades of industrial pollution, was highly corrosive and resulted in lead leaching into the town’s municipal water supply. The crisis was noted for its environmental racism, as the majority of Flint’s residents are African American, and 45 percent of its residents live below the poverty line.
The Flint Water Crisis made national news about a year later when independent research showed critically unsafe levels of lead in the drinking water. Local residents petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to act but were ignored. After years of suing the local government and continued lead exposure, water was reported to be virtually lead-free in February 2019. Yet there is lingering trouble in Flint. Citizens, with a distrust for their government, are still afraid to use the tap water. Many point to Flint’s high African American and impoverished demographic as the reason for government inaction. We have known that lead is poisonous since Ancient Rome, yet thousands of people had to suffer due to government inaction. Flint’s residents were vocal, but it took six years for the problem to be solved.
In comparing the two disasters, the racial disparity is clear. Love Canal was handled quickly, reaching the President of the United States in under a year. It took Flint residents six years to reclaim their drinking water, which still causes stress in the community. It is no wonder why Flint residents have come to distrust their government; they have learned that the government doesn’t care about them.
Without acknowledging our different responses to environmental issues, we will continue to see a disproportionate burden on people of color and low-income communities. Their lack of political capital on the local and federal stage tells a long-lasting story of being ignored, forgotten, and poisoned.