The stretch of land along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans is riddled with petrochemical plants spewing smoke into the air. Huge pipes pump chemicals above and below the highway to load boats in the river. This former plantation land’s modern nicknames are Cancer Alley and Death Alley because of the pollution-induced illness rife in the riverside communities. People familiar with environmental racism won’t be surprised to learn that Saint James Parish, in the heart of this area, is predominately Black. This is some of America’s most polluted air, with eight major industrial plants in 103 square miles and a new, enormous plastic project on the horizon. The cancer rate here is 700 times the national average. All around the country — and, in fact, the world — toxic plants are placed by the least affluent and most vulnerable populations, most of whom are people of color. These low-income communities tend to have the least political power to keep pollution generators out of their backyards.
The term environmental racism
Environmental racism is not a new concept. But with the Black Lives Matter movement thrusting all forms of racial inequity into the public eye, it’s time to take a look at what it means and how we can create change.
Benjamin F. Chavis, Junior, former president of the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA), defined the term in his 1983 work, “Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States.” The NNPA is an association for Black-owned newspaper publishers. Chavis described environmental racism as deliberately targeting communities of color for siting toxic waste facilities that expose people to life-threatening pollutants and poisons. Chavis acknowledged different types of racism, but noted, “environmental racism is a particularly insidious and intentional form of racism that negatively affects millions of Black, Native Americans, Hispanics and Asian Americans, as well as people of color around the world.”
Environmental racism means that people of color feel a disproportionate impact from things like toxic waste dumps, pollution and chemical plants that expose them to pollutants, known carcinogens and contaminated water at a much higher rate than more affluent White neighborhoods. The problem is intensified by officials failing to enforce environmental laws, for example, the thousands of Black children exposed to lead poisoning in Flint, Michigan in the last decade while officials assured everybody the water was safe.
Types of environmental threats that communities of color face
Whether they are threats to the water, air or land, people of color face them all. According to a 2012 NAACP study, communities of color breathe in 40% more polluted air than White neighborhoods. Much of this is from coal plants. While only 13% of the U.S. population is Black, 68% live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant. That’s 12% higher than for White people. Associated problems include higher risks of birth defects, heart attacks and asthma.
Black communities suffer from unusually high levels of asthma. Black women are 20% likelier to have asthma than non-Hispanic White people, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health website. In 2014, Black people were almost three times more likely to die from asthma-related causes than White people. Children are hit especially hard, with a much higher rate of asthma-related hospitalization and death.
In addition to coal plants, low-income Black communities are disproportionately located near other types of toxic sites. In rural areas, this could be farm runoff. “Swine CAFOs are disproportionately located in black and brown communities and regions of poverty,” stated a study by researchers at School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. CAFOs, or concentrated animal feeding operations, are an innocuous-sounding euphemism for animals packed tightly together, living sad and squalid lives around enormous manure lagoons. People who live near these air- and water-polluting operations often suffer from eye, nose and throat irritation, depression, stress and decreased quality of life. In North Carolina, CAFOs center on pigs. In California’s San Joaquin Valley, dairy farm waste, including pesticides, has upped the asthma rates in Black and Brown communities.
Environmental racism and COVID-19
The novel coronavirus has preyed especially hard on people of color. Patients with underlying conditions are up to 12 times as likely to die of COVID-19 than those that were healthy before contracting the novel coronavirus. A CDC report released June 15 cited heart disease, diabetes and chronic lung disease as the most common underlying conditions contributing to COVID-19 deaths.
Black communities have a much higher rate of many conditions that predispose people to dying of COVID-19. These include diabetes, asthma, tobacco exposure, strokes, high blood pressure and cancer. Racism leads to and aggravates all of these conditions, from breathing in more pollution and experiencing more stress in the first place, to having less access to healthcare for early diagnosis and treatment of illness.
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