Environmental Racism: The New New Jim Crow

I don’t see too many of us black folks discussing environmental issues. For the record, I just want to say that environmental issues impact millions of lives in this country. While hardly ever acknowledged, environmental racism is a thing; and it has, and continues to have, a very negative impact on countless lives. And no, it’s not just about lead-poisoned-water in Flint, Michigan, either. While what has happened in Flint is relatively new. People of color have always been forced to occupy spaces that leave the lives of many more vulnerable.

It’s bad enough to live in a community disadvantaged by centuries old institutional racism. Even worse, however, is living in a community where your quality of life and overall lifespan, can be impacted by environmental racism. Again, environmental racism is very real, folks.

Stephanie King with her daughter Ivianna Prater, 8, at their home in the West Calumet Housing Complex in East Chicago, Ind. Soil at the complex has been found to contain high levels of lead, and Ms. King’s 3-year-old son, Josiah, has a worrisome amount of lead in his blood, test results show. Credit Alyssa Schukar for The New York Times

In a video for The Atlantic, staff writer Vann Newkirk argues that environmental racism is the new Jim Crow. “Yeah, yeah, I get it. The environment isn’t a person. How can it be racist?” says Newkirk in the video. “But the most basic pieces of the environment, the air we breathe and the water we drink, are controlled and designed by people. And people can be racist.”

Watch the Video below:

Many people of color reside in communities where the rates of cancer are linked to being exposed to something as ubiquitous as a landfill. You know, the place where garbage is dumped? Well, in a country where black and brown lives have been relegated to second-class citizenship, this is no surprise. In some instances, we live in spaces where toxic chemicals from plants impact the soil and water supply. For example, in East Chicago, Indiana, there are kids who live in housing projects who play on soil contaminated by lead.

The extent of the contamination came as a shock to residents of the complex, even though it is just north of a huge former U.S.S. Lead smelting plant and on top of a smaller former smelting operation, in an area that was designated a Superfund site in 2009. Now, in a situation that many fearful residents are comparing to the water crisis in Flint, Mich., they are asking why neither the state nor the Environmental Protection Agency told them just how toxic their soil was much sooner, and a timeline is emerging that suggests a painfully slow government process of confronting the problem.

These are children who will endure a lifetime of physiological defects much like the children in Flint. Like the children and residents of low-rent apartments with lead paint before them, they too will suffer. Why? Because by no fault of their own, they were born the wrong color.

 We can’t afford to ignore environmental racism, folks. Racism as a tool of capitalism is very real. And sadly, its fangs cut very deep systemically; and often with dire consequences.