Run down apartments are a common sight in Westminster, Calif., a predominantly Vietnamese city. Photo by Kevin Doan.
Fountain Valley High School

Opinion: Environmental racism plagues communities of color

There’s a silent, deadly killer ravaging communities of color: environmental racism. Perpetuated by government regulations and corporate decisions, environmental racism impacts people of color at disproportionate rates.

In big cities like Los Angeles and Detroit, both heavily dominated by people of color, working-class citizens are impacted by air pollution caused by nearby power plants, factories and chemical facilities. According to the Los Angeles Times, people of color are more likely to live near power plants, oil refineries and hazardous landfills—and are forced to deal with the lifelong effects.

In communities like Flint, Michigan and “Cancer Alley,” Louisiana, these lifelong effects are clearly visible. In Flint, thousands of children and families were affected by dangerously high lead levels in their water, which went on for five years.

In Cancer Alley, an 85-mile area that is home to hundreds of oil refineries and chemical plants, residents are 50% more likely to develop cancer than an average American living elsewhere.

In 2018, an Environmental Protection Agency study determined that people of color are more likely to live in heavily polluted areas and the results also “indicate that non-Whites tend to be burdened disproportionately to Whites.”

The history of environmental racism has to do with how communities of color are designed. From where local chemical plants are placed to even the city’s infrastructure, environmental racism is a systemic issue in which communities in poverty, often made up of people of color, are affected by the historical concept that many people of color were forced to work jobs “deemed too dangerous for white workers.” Another factor is the impact of redlining, a discriminatory practice in which government agencies deny services to people based on race.

Not only is environmental racism about the health impacts on communities of color, but also the “exclusion of communities of color from decision-making that affects their health and well-being,” as said by Ihab Mikati, a lead researcher from the 2018 EPA study.

From their very conception, communities of color are excluded from making any decisions concerning the environment that impacted their communities, which contributes to how systemically ingrained this issue is.

Environmental racism even has harmful roots in community infrastructure.

A recent issue in Los Angeles about the precious commodity of shade in lower-income neighborhoods is one example of this. While affluent LA communities overlook the privilege of shade, lower-income LA communities suffer from the effects of climate change and a lack of trees on a daily basis.

Another example is in green spaces, which consist of public parks that help reduce air pollution and are often found in white and affluent communities while communities of color miss out on these benefits. The same effects of environmental racism are seen in housing, as people of color are more likely to experience substandard housing qualities that cause severe health issues.

Rusty and cracked floors, walls and ceilings define many Westminster, Calif. apartment buildings. Photo by Kevin Doan.

Due to the excessive environmental hazards plaguing communities of color, a movement for environmental justice has begun fighting back.

Starting in 1982, the environmental justice movement has fought for years against corporations and government policies that cause these environmental hazards. The problem of environmental racism needs to be addressed and solved, and through the environmental justice movement, activists are doing so.

Environmental justice is something you can take part in, whether it’s through signing petitions or educating yourself and others about how people of color are impacted by environmental racism. Research how environmental racism may affect your community, or nearby communities, and discuss it with others. Acknowledging these problems and actively discussing ways to make a change, such as voting or contacting representatives, are some more methods to participate in the movement.

However, to solve such a massive, institutional problem as environmental racism, it will take more than grass-roots activism.

Politicians and government officials need to step in to reverse environmental policies that drastically hurt communities of color, as well as implement policies to improve the health of affected residents and the conditions of the natural lands polluted by past regulations.

President Joe Biden is taking a step in the right direction, with an executive order aiming to address environmental racism and prioritize environmental justice during his term.

In this executive order, Biden created a White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council and pledged 40% of benefits from federal investments into marginalized communities impacted by environmental racism.

Although these initiatives are progress in terms of environmental justice, they are still only the tip of the iceberg. It’s important that we acknowledge and address the effects of environmental racism on communities of color, and that we hold our government officials accountable for prioritizing environmental justice policies in the future.