Intro to Environmental Racism, Environmental Justice, and Critical Race Theory

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Environmental Racism, by definition “is the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color (Brady). Minority groups are often forced to live in places with insufficient resources, more polluted air and/or water quality, areas that are generally unsafe and hazardous to an individuals health. There were many examples of looking at environmental racism using Critical Race Theory in A Different Mirror by Ronald Takaki. Although all groups in Takakis’ text experienced some form of environmental racism, some of the more prominent groups were Native Americans, African Americans, and Latine Americans. These three groups, although vastly different, have experienced in some forms, similar experiences when it comes to environmental racism. Native American Context: Sydney Cook In Chapters 2 and 3 of Ronald Takaki’s book A Different Mirror, he discusses in depth the treatment of Indigenous people when settlers arrived. Settlers at the time believed the Indians did not deserve the “greater part of the land” as they were such uncivilized savages. They believed Indians did not know how to use the land for all of its resources. At first, they laid claim to small parts of the land, after the cultivation of tobacco took off settlers began claiming larger parts of the land and the most bountiful parts. This is a great example of how environmental racism is rooted in the history of this land and has always existed. In December of 1854 the Nisqually tribe signed the Treaty of Medicine Creek. Article 3 of that treaty stated that: “The right of taking fish, at all usual and accustomed grounds and stations, is further secured to said Indians in common with all citizens of the Territory.”

This meant that tribes could continue to fish for salmon to feed their families as they had done since time immemorial. As time went on promises that were made to the Nisqually and other tribes, were broken. The WDFW (Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife) began confiscating fishing nets and trying to push the tribal fisherman out. Nisqually tribal members knew that they were being denied their treaty rights. Activism and fishing wars began. Among the many tribal fishermen that were arrested for fishing in their homelands, was Billy Frank Jr. Billy was arrested more than 50 times in relation to fishing disputes. Billy took on an influential role in what became a movement among Indigenous people of the pacific northwest. He organized protests, demonstrations and fish ins. He was involved in many lawsuits against the state for not maintaining the signed treaties. This conflict would continue for decades. Billy as well as other tribal fisherman fought tirelessly, leading up to United States v. Washington, also known as the Boldt Decision. The Boldt Decision upheld treaty rights and awarded tribes 50% of the catch in their “usual and accustomed” fishing grounds. This restored and reaffirmed the livelihoods and frankly the way of life of many indigenous people.

While this was a great victory, indigenous people we still see environmental racism today regarding fishing in the pacific northwest. While the Boldt decision awarded 50 % of the salmon catch to indigenous people, what’s not taken into account is that non-indigenous people greatly affect the salmon population. Things like development, over population, dams, habitat degradation, expansion of oil refineries and open net fish farms directly affect the salmon run. Decisions about these factors are often made without any consultation with the Native American tribes of the area. Indigenous people in the pacific northwest still have to come together to organize protests against proposed projects like The Gateway Pacific Terminal and companies like Cooke Aquaculture who were responsible for the Atlantic Salmon disaster. Industrial and Corporate Pollution in an African American Context: Overwhelmingly, we see African American communities (specifically poor/ low income) being the target of environmental racism. We see their communities taken advantage of by larger corporations and industrial plants. These sites, when poorly maintained, pollute the land, air, and water, greatly affecting the health and wellbeing of the surrounding residents. This is an issue that is occurring globally. However, I will examine this issue within the context of the united states areas such as Louisiana, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Chicago, Seattle, California, Texas, etc. I rely mainly on the story of residents of South Atlanta’s Lakewood, and Chosewood Park neighborhoods, affected by an old GM assembly plant, turned industrial recycling site.

The experiences of these residents are not uncommon, their story reflects many poor, minoritized communities' experiences when facing large industrial corporations. Not only do we see the degradation of residents’ health within close proximity to the plants, but we also see the collapse of the neighborhoods surrounding these sites as well. Antoinette Gomez, Fatemeh Shafiei, & Glenn Johnson illustrate this story in their article Black Women’s Involvement in the Environmental Justice Movement. Within the historically black community of South Atlanta lies the neighborhoods of Lakewood and Chosewood Park. These communities were once working-class white neighborhoods hosting employees of the nearby General Motors Assembly Plant which opened in 1927. In the 1990s the plant closed turning the community into a lower working- class diverse neighborhood. The General Motors plant turned into Mindis Recycling plant in 1991 after being declared a ‘brownfield’ (real property, the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant by the EPA). “The first documented environmental concerns occurred in 1989 when General Motors reported sixteen toxic spills to the EPA.” The land then experienced groundwater contamination, soil contamination, and fires. (Gomez, A. M., Shafiei, F., & Johnson, G. S., 2011).

The facility is located in close proximity to fifty homes. In 1994, shortly after Mindis began operations, residents complained about foul odors in the air. This odor was peculiar and particularly strong in the late evenings and on extremely hot days. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) and Georgia Department of Health (GDH) conducted a site visit in October 1994, to review the effluent and influent records for odor-causing compounds... Ammonia, amines, sulfur compounds, and various volatile organic compounds were found present in waste samples taken. “When they (Mindis) have a spill, you can’t stand the odor; the odor makes people sick and nauseated. The odor is so bad that people cannot work in their gardens, and the neighborhood school has to close [its] windows and at times the children with asthmatic problems had to be sent home. -Ella Trammel 1998 (Gomez, A. M., Shafiei, F., & Johnson, G. S., 2011). The Community responded in 1996 creating the Tri-Community Collaborative. The community rallied and protested yet “residents continued to suffer from health problems that were associated with the site as well as the odor nuisances.” Symptoms included Dizziness, nasal irritation, and being nauseated. “Older women complained of difficulty breathing when chemicals were emitted into the air. Several mothers commented that their children suffered from asthma that they attributed to poor air quality in their communities.” (Gomez, A. M., Shafiei, F., & Johnson, G. S., 2011).

The ramifications of the pollution do not just end with health. The neighborhoods started facing adversity. “The women rated drugs, crime and environmental degradation as the worst problems in their community. Mary King Stated “Drugs, crime, and a dump across the street [Mindis site] because once they moved in, we got, rats, roaches, and crime. But still with the junk over there it attracts rodents (King, 1998) (Gomez, A. M., Shafiei, F., & Johnson, G. S. (2011). The Question the residents ask is why them? “One woman stated that it is no accident that when decisions are being made over where a site should be placed, they are placed in poor and black communities Margie- Gay Peterson said, “Landfills and wastewater plants are put in poor and people of color communities because they are not politically involved to stop it.” (Peterson,1998) Ms. Powell responded that the placement of landfills in her community is part of “designed confusion,’ This refers to the planned genocide of people of color by whites.” “African Americans are victims of environmental pollution and disease, their communities are disproportionately “toxic dumps” and their bodies are “toxic sites” (Merchant, 2003) (Gomez, A. M., Shafiei, F., & Johnson, G. S., 2011). Latine Context: Mabel Miller Of the 3 million people employed in agriculture in the United States, one-third are undocumented farm workers.

The majority of these farm workers hail from Mexico, while others come from Central and South American countries. Farmworker rights connect directly to environmental racism because this minoritized group is forced to engage in the work that directly exploits the land they live on. The well-being of the environment is based upon the intersection of equity, sustainable ecology, a thriving economy, and overall human health. Not a single one of these needs are being met when it comes to the exploitation of Latine laborers in agriculture. Latine lives are put at risk through poor living accommodations, dangerous working conditions, including pesticides, and the exploitation of child labor. Agriculture is a very hazardous industry due to poor living accommodations. In Robert Gottlieb and Anupama Joshi's book, Food Justice, they discuss “where farm workers are housed has also become part of the system of abuse and unhealthy living conditions” (page 21).

They also noted that there are a “handful of studies that have linked substandard or overcrowded conditions to such health problems as ‘gastro-intestinal illnesses associated with the lack of a refrigerator and significantly elevated levels of anxiety and depression associated with poor living conditions’” (pages 21-22). If farmworkers aren’t granted the basic human rights allowed to other US citizens, they will continue to face harm from the dominant systems in society that oppress them. Working conditions, specifically pesticides, are also a major concern for agricultural laborers. “Soil fumigants such as DBCP are just one group of the many hazardous substances and routes of exposure when it comes to chemical inputs in the fields. Deaths and injuries from spraying, handling, and even inadvertent ingestion of toxic chemicals are a constant risk. Workplace exposures and community exposures are linked: workers bring pesticide residues home on their clothing and may live in homes adjacent to fields and exposed to pesticide drift; and water and air contamination turn these homes and their communities into an extension of the hazardous workplace” (Gottlieb & Joshi, page 25).

Once again, race and health are connected due to oppressive circumstances imposed by the commanding enforcers of social class. As if this wasn’t concerning enough, chemicals used in agriculture have also been associated with the development of Parkinson's disease as well as infertility. The chemicals that are introduced to their bodies and the land are clearly unhealthy and pose harm to both humans and the environment. Working conditions commonly found in agriculture are not only concerning but an issue of human rights. Children are also involved in the hazardous workforce of agriculture. While parents may not desire their children to partake in such an unsafe occupation, lack of documentation or other opportunities can force families into this field of work. “Children as young as fourteen years are allowed by federal law to work in agriculture, and children as young as sixteen years are allowed to perform field work defined as particularly hazardous, whereas the minimum age for performing hazardous work in all other industries is eighteen (and sixteen for non-hazardous work).” Often children as young as 9 or 10 accompany their parents to the fields with the only restriction being that such work not occur during school hours. Since 1938, exemptions in the federal child labor law, the Fair Labor Standards Act, have excluded child agricultural workers from many of the protections afforded almost every other working child. (Gottlieb & Joshi, pages 20-21).

With the next generation stuck doing work that abuses their bodies and overall well-being, how are they supposed to advocate for themselves, let alone the planet? Nearly all youth working between the ages of 15 and 17 are from Latine or other minority families. This is clearly an issue of race, for the black and brown youth of our country are not allowed the chances to complete work that isn’t harming their lives all while simultaneously destroying the planet they will one day inherit from their predecessors. Race and lack of social mobility are factors that often drive Latine folk into the agricultural workforce. This occupation works directly with the land and introduces harmful conditions on both humans and the earth. When it comes to food, a basic human need, our society fails to promote an equitable system and instead surrenders to the greed of the oppressive dominate groups. “The lessons are clear,” Gottlieb & Joshi conclude. “The exploitation and abuses of the dominant food systems have become essential battleground in how we grow and produce the food we eat” (page 38). Collective Story: Shannon Davidson It’s been years since I’ve seen smoke other than from my own fires.

At first, I thought it was storm clouds. Then, I heard the rumbling. The ground shook and I knew I wasn’t alone anymore. I ran to climb the highest tree as I sling my bow across my back. I climb the mountainous pine to find a machine long and dome shaped charging towards me. Almost as if someone mobilized an aircraft hangar. It had wheels like a tank and turrets to match. I haven’t seen another human being in almost a decade, and I don’t think this meeting will be very pleasant. After all the storms, heat, radiation, famine, flood, forest fires, drought, deforestation, etc. I thought I was the only one unlucky enough to survive, even if I couldn’t remember how.

The rumble grew louder as the machine grew closer it roared in my ears and raised the hairs on my arm. Why are they here? How did they find me? What do they want? My best guess? Resources. That’s pretty much what started it all. Things were hard before it all went down. The thing I miss the most though was my grandmothers' stories. I can still hear her voice in my head, and my mothers and my aunts, educating me about our home. The land our ancestors had lived and worked on for many years. That connection they had to the land, I craved it. I craved to have that sense of community. I wanted to live out my grandmothers' stories even though they weren’t even hers. These stories are the only thing that have kept me going for this long. I followed them to this land and made it my own. I have that connection to my land now, to our land. I will defend this place, this is my home and I’m the person who knows it best. Those assholes have no idea what’s coming for them.

Works Cited

Brady , Judy. “Environmental Justice & Environmental Racism.” GREENACTION, WordPress, Frank, Billy, and Kari Neumeyer. Tell the Truth: the Collected Columns of Billy Frank Jr. Salmon Defense, 2015. Gomez, A. M., Shafiei, F., & Johnson, G. S. (2011). BLACK WOMEN'S INVOLVEMENT IN THE ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE MOVEMENT: AN ANALYSIS OF THREE COMMUNITIES IN ATLANTA, GEORGIA. Race, Gender & Class, 18(1), 189-214. Retrieved from Gottlieb, R. & Joshi A. (2010) Food justice. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Rainey, S. A., & Johnson, G. S. (2009). GRASSROOTS ACTIVISM: AN EXPLORATION OF WOMEN OF COLOR'S ROLE IN THE ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE MOVEMENT.Race, Gender & Class, 16(3), 144-173. Retrieved from Takaki, Ronald T. A Different Mirror: a History of Multicultural America. Back Bay Books/Little, Brown, and Co., 2008. “Treaty of Medicine Creek.” GOIA,

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Intro to Environmental Racism, Environmental Justice, and Critical Race Theory. (2019, Feb 05). Retrieved May 18, 2024 , from

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