The Persistence of Environmental Racism

flint water“Earth itself has become the nigger of the world,” writes award-winning poet Alice Walker.  She goes on to elaborate:

“It is perceived, ironically, as other, as alien, evil, and threatening by those who are finding they cannot draw a healthful breath without its cooperation.  While the Earth is poisoned, everything it supports is poisoned.  While the earth is enslaved, none of us is free.  While the Earth is a “nigger,” it has no choice but to think of us as all as Wasichus.  While it is “treated like dirt,” so are we.”[1]

While the earth is poisoned, we often ignore our complicity with said poisoning. Our complicity is easier to ignore when those poisoned do not belong to the dominant culture. In Flint Michigan we ignored how we poisoned the drinking water mainly because those being poisoned are predominately black, where 40 percent of the residents live below the poverty level. Lead levels in Flint’s water supply have reached 13,200 parts per billion in some homes. And in spite of requirements by the Environmental Protection Agency for governmental action once levels surpasses 15 parts per billion, Michigan made the decision to sit on its hands. Flint provides us with the latest instance on how environmental racism is manifested. Even when directly asked if Flint’s water pollution was an example of environmental racism, Governor Rick Snyder (R) said, “absolutely not.”  Here is why I find the good governor’s answer difficult to believe.

Environmental racism, defined as the link between the degradation of the environment and the racial composition of the areas where degradation takes place, has been prevalent among communities of color throughout the United States. Race, according to a growing body of empirical evidence, continues to be the most significant variable in determining the location of commercial, industrial, and military hazardous-waste sites.

Between 1999 and 2009, the National Academy of Science produced five environmental justice reports showing that “low-income and people of color communities are exposed to higher levels of pollution than the rest of the nation and that these same populations experience certain diseases in greater number than more affluent White communities.”[2] Ethicist Emilie Townes has said that the effects of toxic waste on the lives of people of color who are relegated due to their poverty to live on ecologically hazardous lands are akin to a contemporary version of lynching a whole people.[3]

The State of Michigan is participating in a contemporary version of lynching the people of Flint. Since April 2014, high levels of poisonous lead was detected in Flint’s water supply, ever since the city, in an attempt to save money, started drawing its water from the Flint River instead of the Detroit municipal system. Although the State knew of the hazards since 2014, it made a conscious decision not to respond. The governments’ lack of action in Flint is consistent with how governments react when violations occur in communities of color – very slowly. Studies conducted concerning the speed of government action when pollution violations are discovered, found that when violations exists in minority communities, the government took as much as 20 percent longer than when violations occurred in white communities.[4]

Michigan inaction was consistent with these studies. Emails among the Governor’s administration show officials who at times were dismissive about Flint’s residents concerns, eager to blame local government and dispute the scientific findings. One top aide to the governor referred to those raising concerns about Flint’s water quality as an “anti-everything group.”

When those racially and ethnically marginalized compare the environmental quality of life of where they live with that of the larger white society, it becomes all too obvious that a link exists between polluted sites and disenfranchisement. Few white environmentalists seriously consider this link and consequently they fail to understand a major reason why pollution occurs disproportionately in certain areas. The failure of the environmental justice movement to come to terms with the inherent racism that relegates those on the margins to the greatest ecological health risks prevents fostering a truly global, holistic approach to the environment. Environmentalists benefitting from white privilege cannot continue to isolate ecological concerns from environmental racism. Continuing to mask environmental racism limits, if not frustrates any attempt or hope for the liberation of humans and creaturekind alike.

This op-ed is derived from my book Doing Christian Ethics from the Margins

– Miguel A. De La Torre


[1] Alice Walker, Living by the Word (San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1981) 147.

[2] Robert D. Bullard, Glenn S. Johnson, and Angel O. Torres, Environmental Health and Racial Equity in the United States: Building Environmentally Just, Sustainable, and Livable Communities (Washington, D.C.: American Public Health Association, 2011) 23, 53.

[3] Emilie Townes, In a Blaze of Glory: Womanist Spirituality as Social Witness (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995) 55.

[4] Acevedo-Garcia, et. al., Unequal Health Outcomes in the United States: Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Health Care Treatment and Access, the Role of Social and Environmental Determinants of Health, and the Responsibility of the State (New York: United Nations, 2008) 27-28.

One thought on “The Persistence of Environmental Racism

  1. Pingback: The Persistence of Environmental Racism | AJP's Favs

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s