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The fight for environmental justice in America’s segregated cities

The fight for environmental justice in America’s segregated cities
06 Sep
‘Abolitionist climate justice’ is an evolving movement that aims to tackle the disparate effects of climate change across race and class

In 1987, a report released by the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice laid bare the stark reality of exposure to toxic waste experienced by African-American communities in the United States. It found that ‘three out of the five largest commercial hazardous waste landfills in the US were located in predominantly Black or Hispanic communities.’ It concluded that race was the most significant variable tested in association with the location of commercial waste sites. The report emerged five years after mass protests from residents of Warren County, North Carolina over plans to dump toxic soil filled with polychlorinated biphenyls – chemicals known to cause serious health problems – in a nearby landfill site.

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Today, an area along the Mississippi river stretching from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, termed ‘Cancer Alley’ by residents, epitomises the ongoing struggle of African-American neighbourhoods against air and water pollution. The high concentration of industrial facilities along the 85-mile corridor has consistently been linked to some of the highest cancer rates in the country, as well as issues ranging from polluted groundwater to coastal erosion.

These cases are demonstrative of what activists have named ‘environmental racism’. According to the National Resources Defence Council, the term addresses the statistical fact that ‘communities of colour, which are often poor, are routinely targeted to host facilities that have negative environmental impacts.’ It also encompasses the disproportionate impacts of natural disasters, flooding and food insecurity on minority groups.

Damage from Hurricane Katrina in New OrleansDamage from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward

Hurricane Katrina is remembered as one of the worst cases of 21st century environmental injustice, devastating majority Black communities in New Orleans in 2005. This was largely a result of vulnerability set in place by disparities in housing quality, income levels, mitigating resources and a highly inefficient government response. More than a third of residents living in the Lower Ninth Ward, one of the areas hit the hardest, were living below the poverty line. Similar scenes were repeated last year, in downtown Lumberton and Goldsboro, when Hurricane Florence hit North Carolina.

Consequently, questions about how the environmental impacts of climate change will differentiate across the race and class spectrum are being increasingly brought to the fore. A recent study by associate professors Malini Ranganathan from American University and Eve Bratman from Franklin and Marshall College, indicates that majority Black areas in Washington DC, such as Ward 7 on the Anacostia River, are more vulnerable to mid-Atlantic weather extremes and flooding due to a history of environmental inequality. Such events will inevitably be heightened by climate change. They also claim that climate resilience strategies put in place by authorities fail to account for differing levels of vulnerability.

Power Plant next to Anacostia River in Washington DCPower plant next to Anacostia River in Washington DC

Described in the study as a ‘piece of the third world within the first’, Ward 7 is a low-lying area east of the Anacostia River. It is one of the most underserved and economically challenged areas in the city. Ranganathan explains that ‘we sought to uncover a longer history of environmental racism, tracing, for instance, the roots of soil erosion and flood vulnerability east of the Anacostia river to racial slavery in the region starting from the 1600s.’ This was enhanced by the arrival of military projects and toxic industries that polluted the river and degraded surrounding land, she adds.

Bratman asserts that settler colonialism and slavery laid the foundations for inequality. ‘By the 20th century, housing segregation, toxic waste sites such as trash incinerators and coal-fired energy plants all continued to disproportionately affect the health and environment for Black populations in the District,’ she claims.

‘Today you walk around Ward 7, an area which is more than 90 per cent African-American, and you realise there is only one grocery story in the area. This outcome is undeniably linked to a long history of racial segregation and disinvestment in the area,’ explains Ranganathan. It follows that those who experience difficulties accessing grocery stores, such as the elderly, are set to be particularly vulnerable in times of crisis. She adds that ‘those who have poor health conditions – say asthma because, again, asthma is a highly racialised disease in the US – will be especially hard hit during a heat wave. All of this has compounded to render communities vulnerable to environmental and climate change, which is what our research sought to uncover.’

the Holy Rosary Cemetery in Taft, Louisiana, with a petrochemical plant on the backgroundThe Holy Rosary Cemetery in Taft, Louisiana, with a petrochemical plant on the background. The cemetery is located in the so called ‘Cancer Alley’

With this in mind, the researchers make a case for uniting the concept of abolitionism – a deep history of civil rights campaigning-  with climate justice to encourage the development of solutions that account for the racialised social factors predetermining vulnerability. ‘Uniting abolitionism with climate justice demands recognition of intersectional drivers of harm, and opens up many more possibilities for addressing the underpinnings of injustices that stop people from leading healthy and dignified lives,’ explains Bratman.

‘Anti-racist activists such as those in Black Lives Matter or even those in the Sunrise Movement are connecting the dots between jobs, police violence, and environmental issues. This makes sense when you consider that those at the frontlines of climate change – indigenous groups, people of color – are also those that are more exposed to state violence and myriad forms of discrimination,’ Ranganathan adds.

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Top-down resilience strategies are resultantly noted by the pair to be exclusive and often incapable of addressing such complex issues. Bratman concludes that ‘Resilience is appealing on many counts – it often yields slick architectural solutions, green infrastructures, or programs oriented at strengthening community ties that appeal to policy-makers.’ She maintains, however, that ‘in Northeastern Ward 7, talking about resilience ignores the underpinning conditions that made people vulnerable in the first place, including ignoring a legacy landfill site, and being blind to the fact that construction of luxury condos is a part of broader gentrification and displacement dynamics.’

From Detroit to Los Angeles, similar patterns are emerging from a legacy of slavery, industrialisation and housing segregation. Long-running grass roots organisations such as the Love More movement, DWEJ, El Puente and UPROSE, continue to work on the ground, mobilising communities and tackling deep-rooted social issues to alleviate broader environmental injustices. It seems now that the environmental movement is gradually taking on a new meaning, championed by those striving for a vision of security and equality.

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