Confronting Environmental Racism in the 21st Century
Environmental racism refers to any policy, practice, or directive that differentially affects or disadvantages (whether intended or unintended) individuals, groups, or communities based on race or colour. Environmental racism combines with public policies and industry practices to provide benefits for corporations, while shifting costs to people of colour. Government, legal, economic, political, and military institutions reinforce environmental racism. Environmental racism influences local land use, enforcement of environmental regulations, industrial facility siting, and where people of colour live, work and play. The roots of environmental racism are deep and have been difficult to eliminate.
Environmental decision making often mirrors the power arrangements of the dominant society and its institutions. It disadvantages people of colour while providing advantages or privileges for corporations and individuals in the upper echelons of society. A form of illegal ‘exaction’ forces people of colour to pay costs of environmental benefits for the public at large. The question of who pays
and who benefits
from environmental and industrial policies is central to this analysis of environmental racism.
Environmental racism reinforces the stratification of people
(race, ethnicity, status, power), place
(central cities, suburbs, rural areas, unincorporated areas, Native American reservations, homelands), and work
(office workers afforded greater protection than farm workers). It institutionalizes unequal enforcement, trades human health for profit, places the burden of proof on the ‘victims’ and not the polluting industry, legitimizes human exposure to harmful chemicals, pesticides, and hazardous substances, promotes ‘risky’ technologies, exploits the vulnerability of economically and politically disenfranchised communities, subsidizes ecological destruction, creates an industry around risk assessment, delays cleanup actions, and fails to develop pollution prevention and precaution as the overarching and dominant strategy.
Environmental decision making and local land-use planning operate at the juncture of science, economics, politics and special interests that place communities of colour at special risk. This is especially true of the southern United States, which became a ‘sacrifice zone’, a sump for the rest of the nation’s toxic waste. The Deep South is stuck with this unique legacy—the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow and white resistance to equal justice for all.
The southern United States is characterized by ‘look-the-other-way’ environmental policies and giveaway tax breaks. Lax enforcement of environmental regulations has left the region’s air, water and land the most industry-befouled in the United States. The Lower Mississippi River Industrial Corridor has over 125 companies that manufacture a range of products including fertilizers, gasoline, paints and plastics. Environmentalists and local residents have dubbed this corridor ‘Cancer Alley’. Louisiana citizens subsidize this corporate welfare with their health and the environment. Tax breaks given to polluting industries have created a few jobs at a high cost. Nowhere is the polluter-welfare scenario more prevalent than in Louisiana. The state is a leader in doling out corporate welfare to polluters. A 1998 Time
article reported that in the 1990s, Louisiana wiped off the books $3.1 billion in property taxes to polluting companies. The state’s top five worse polluters received $111 million dollars over the past decade.
There is a direct correlation between exploitation of land and exploitation of people. Native Americans have to contend with some of the worst pollution in the United States and their lands are prime targets for landfills, incinerators, garbage dumps and risky mining operations. Pollution from industries is showing up in the Akwesasne mothers’ milk in New York. Native and indigenous peoples’ lands in Alaska and Hawaii have been poisoned by military waste. Native American reservations are under siege from ‘radioactive colonialism’.
Radioactive colonialism operates in energy production (mining of uranium) and disposal of wastes on Indian lands. Mojave Indians in California are fighting to keep out a radioactive dump that would threaten their reservations. The Eastern Navajo Dine Against Uranium Mining or ENDAUM, a grassroots group, is fighting a proposal to permit a uranium mining operation near their homelands in Church Rock and Crownpoint, Mexico. The legacy of institutional racism has left many sovereign Indian nations without an economic infrastructure to address poverty, unemployment, inadequate education and health care, and a host of other social problems.
Environmental racism is also evident at the global level. Shipping hazardous wastes from rich communities to poor communities is not a solution to the growing global waste problem. Transboundary shipment of banned pesticides, hazardous wastes, toxic products, and export of ‘risky technologies’ from the United States, where regulations and laws are more stringent, to nations with weaker infrastructure, regulations and laws smacks of a double standard. Unequal interests and power arrangements have allowed the poisons of the rich to be offered as short-term remedies for poverty of the poor. This scenario plays out at the national level (as in the United States, where low-income and communities of people of colour are disproportionately impacted by waste facilities and ‘dirty’ industries) and internationally (where hazardous wastes move from OECD states to non-OECD states).
Endangered people of colour in the industrialized countries of the North have a lot in common with populations in developing countries of the South that are also threatened by industrial polluters. Global alliances have formed between the ‘victims’ of environmental injustice. The strength of these global alliances was demonstrated in the recent defeat of the Japanese-owned Shintech polyvinyl chloride plant in the tiny, mostly African-American town of Convent, Louisiana. Grassroots groups from Norco, Louisiana to Ogoni, Nigeria, identified Shell Oil as a common threat. Environmental justice activists have mobilized in central city ghettos, barrios, and villages from Atlanta to the Artic Circle, Alaska to South Central Los Angeles to South Africa to rural Native American reservations, the United States-Mexico border, and rainforests in Columbia, Ecuador, El Salvador and Brazil. These groups have organized, educated and empowered themselves to challenge government and industrial polluters. They have also elevated their message and struggles to the international arena, including the United Nations Human Rights Commission, World Bank and World Trade Organization.
The ‘unwritten’ policy of targeting Third World nations for waste trade received international media attention in 1991. Lawrence Summers, at the time he was chief economist of the World Bank, shocked the world and touched off an international scandal when his confidential memorandum on waste trade was leaked. Summers wrote: ‘‘Dirty’ Industries: Just between you and me, shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging MORE migration of the dirty industries to the LDCs?’
Environmental racism also manifests itself in the substandard treatment of workers. Thousands of farm workers and their families are exposed to dangerous pesticides on the job and in labour camps. These workers endure substandard wages and working conditions. Environmental racism extends to the exploitative work environment of garment district sweatshops, the micro-electronic industry, and extraction industries. A disproportionately large share of the workers who suffer under substandard occupational and safety conditions are immigrants, women and people of colour.
The conditions surrounding the more than 2,000 maquiladoras
, assembly plants operated by American, Japanese and other foreign countries, located along the border between the United States and Mexico may further exacerbate the waste trade. These industrial plants use cheap Mexican labour to assemble imported components and raw materials, and then ship finished products back to the United States. Thousands of Mexican workers are employed in the maquiladoras
. All along the Lower Rio Grande River Valley maquiladoras
dump their toxic wastes into the river, from which 95 per cent of the region’s residents get their drinking water. The disregard for the environment and public safety has placed border residents’ health and physical environment at risk.