Environmental and Racial Justice are Inseparable

In honor of Earth Day, Advancement Project and the Mesothelioma and Asbestos Awareness Center (MAA Center) bring you a post about the intersection of environmental and racial justice, and the health impacts of environmental hazards on communities of color.

By Jeralyn Cave, Advancement Project and Anna Suarez, Mesothelioma and Asbestos Awareness Center

Environmental Racism

Environmental and racial justice are frequently viewed as two disparate issues. But with communities of color bearing a disproportionate impact of infringements on clean water, clean air, and safety at home and in schools, the facts tell a different story. Communities of color continue to struggle at the margins for the resources they need to live and learn. As we turn the page on Earth Day 2017, we must recognize that environmental tragedies disproportionately impacting people of color are no coincidence. They can often be the result of two factors: intentional decision making and complicit neglect.

Access to clean water and air is a resource communities of color have consistently fought for. In Savage Inequalities, author Jonathan Kozol explores how toxic waste flowed through the historically Black town of East St. Louis, Illinois.  The area, a booming community at the turn of the 20th Century, began to crumble when chemical corporations began to relocate to the region. East St. Louis eventually became a cesspool for overflow from the nearby chemical plants. As a result, Black residents disproportionately suffered from lead poisoning and higher asthma rates from the toxic fumes. While Savage Inequalities was written in 1991, not much has changed when it comes to environmental violence against Black people.

In 2016, Flint, Michigan garnered national attention because of its polluted water crisis. In a deliberate move by state officials to save money, residents had their water source diverted from Lake Huron in early 2014. Consequently, residents were exposed to high levels of lead that poisoned their water system and even led to Legionnaires' disease in some instances.  During this period, residents were also forced to pay their water bills despite the water being contaminated and unfit for human consumption. Grassroots organizing and town halls like Black Flint Rising created a national effort to bring clean water to the town and hold officials accountable for their failure to address an environmental injustice of epic proportions.

Communities of color are also disproportionately impacted by environmental hazards like asbestos. Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that was widely used in construction projects up until the 1980s. It was a material of choice because of its durability and resistance to fire. If inhaled, however, asbestos can eventually cause cancers in the lung tissue and the linings around the lungs, heart or abdomen. While we know that poor communities are more likely to come in contact with lead and asbestos at home due to older housing stock, children also come in contact with it in our nation’s schools - buildings where children spend much of their time. In 2014, a Mic.com article documented how the presence of asbestos, along with mold and mice in Little Singer Community School in the Navajo Nation, directly impacted the present and future health of students and contributed to poor educational outcomes.

“In 2013, fewer than 25% of Little Singer Community School's
 Students were proficient in reading and math.”

The need to address exposure to toxic materials in schools is further underscored by the fact that teachers are at a higher risk for developing mesothelioma, with a rate double the average for Americans. Exposure to environmental toxins like asbestos among communities of color is painfully high and disparate. But there are steps we can take to reverse intentional decision making and the complicit neglect of communities of color by policymakers and environmental officials:

Educate yourself.  Agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency can help you learn about the conditions of your community. Organizations like the Mesothelioma and Asbestos Awareness Center also provide resources.

Be vocal and tell our congressional, state, and local representatives that it’s unacceptable that public schools are a health risk to children and teachers. Remind your representatives that environmental issues are critical issues that still impact our society today. It’s not just homes, but schools as well!

Organize. Environmental justice IS a racial justice issue. There are many organizations that work at the intersection of environmental and racial justice issues. Below are just a few:

Community Coalition for Environmental Justice, Seattle, WA
Concerned Citizens of S.C.L.A., Los Angeles, CA
Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, Detroit, MI
West Harlem Environmental Action - WE ACT, Inc., West Harlem, NY

Recognize that we can win! In March, the attorney general of Massachusetts announced a program called “Healthy Buildings, Healthy Air” that supports asbestos educational efforts in schools and increases enforcement of asbestos regulations. The “new initiative will focus on educating those with a greater risk of asbestos exposure, including children, the elderly and low-income families.”

The environmental problems disproportionately impacting people of color are no coincidence – they are part and parcel of a history of racial injustice in this country. As we work to end systems that perpetuate inequity, we must work to support clean and sustainable environments for everyone.