The focus of environmental justice has been the preservation of ecologies and spaces largely uninhabited by people of color. There is grave consideration for the preservation of national parks, but not for the preservation of black life and space.
The ideas of justice and environment refer to the surrounding conditions of living things, yet the apathy that surrounds understanding that black people have specific environmental issues is directly informed by anti-black racism. Black communities are disproportionately impacted by exposure to lead-based paint and proximity to landfills, dangerous waste sites and industrial facilities. Communities of color have a higher exposure to air pollution, and water contamination is a serious issue in poor and racialized communities across the country.
Racism and the disappearance of infrastructure have been a reality for black communities for generations. Environmental justice—a set of organizations and movements meant to combat the destruction of ecologies through federal, state and community-led initiatives meant to protect the environment—often fails to protect the people of color who live there.
These failures occur on multiple levels but are directly linked to how people understand environmental justice separate from racism. There is no justice that can occur without a racial analysis, especially when it is communities of color that will be most directly affected.
The water crisis in Flint, Mich., is one example of this, where lead poisoning in the water supply harmed the largely poor and black community. The state Department of Environmental Quality did not treat the water with an anti-corrosive agent, which is in direct violation of federal law. As a result, the lead from aging water pipelines began leaking into Flint’s water supply. Lead consumption in general can affect the heart, kidney and nerves, but in children it also affects cognition, behavioral “disorders,” delayed puberty and hearing issues.
On the federal level, agents from the Environment Protection Agency, a federally funded agency meant to protect human health and the environment by creating and enforcing regulations, were involved in the early stages that led to the Flint water disaster, yet the federal Lead and Copper Rule, which should have protected the people in Flint, failed to do so.
Further, while the EPA’s Office of Civil Rights was founded in 1993, it has yet to make a formal finding of discrimination during its entire existence. It is continually reinforced that the protection of the environment, which is rigorously enforced in largely white communities like Bismarck, N.D., a town that had the choice to vote down the Dakota Access Pipeline, is not a serious consideration for black and Native communities and other communities of color.
Many community-led and progressive organizations that profess to fight environmental injustice do not organize against police brutality in black communities, even though that is an issue of environment. Voter suppression in black communities is an environmental issue. Food deserts and poor transit infrastructure are determinants of environmental racism. At best the latter organizations claim anti-racism as an act of solidarity, but not as an integral component of their organizing structures and practices. Big Green has not committed to Black Lives Matter and the Movement for Black Lives, despite the very real indicators of environmental injustice in black communities.
Environmental justice needs to be redefined in terms of racism because it is people of color who are most directly affected by environmental conditions. Climate change will disproportionately affect low-income communities and communities of color that will be more vulnerable to natural disasters like heat waves, flooding and hurricanes because of fewer resources, economic disenfranchisement and unstable housing.
This is further exacerbated by the failure of progressive environmental-justice organizations to act, and a too-often inadequate response on the state and federal levels. Hurricane Katrina and the flooding in Baton Rouge, La., last year exposed the failure of people to mobilize where anti-black racism and environmental injustice meet.
Fighting against environmental racism is environmental justice. Environments are determined by race, ethnicity and class, and unless those fighting for environmental justice expand and grow their analysis, their efforts will continue to fail to respond to the time we are in. Any form of justice requires meaningful engagement from those most harmed or affected by the conditions being fought against.
If environmental justice wants to live up to its name, it must consider the very real injustice of racism.