Opinion: Environmental Racism and the Silent Attack on Non-White Communities

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Giulia Forsythe, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The following piece is provided by The Vanguard’s Berkeley student publication and does not necessarily represent the views of the author and the Vanguard and its editorial staff. The Vanguard invites robust but respectful discussion on this and all other topics. Alternative views can be submitted to info@davisvanguard.org.

By Sheila Thacker

A health care professional I visited at a clinic in Richmond some time ago was interested in looking at the vast array of issues that he diagnoses. But as I drove to the clinic, I couldn’t help but notice the clouds of smoke from the factories. A twisted, multi-layered labyrinth that was a highway system; The railways are interspersed with agricultural fields. I felt something, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.

It was only later, seeing patients in the clinic, that I realized what bothered me about the landscape—there was something unnerving about the dangerous environment, especially combined with what I saw in the clinic. Instead of different issues, I saw almost the same issues repeating themselves. In about a fourth person we saw, I was able to accurately predict their health status and the condition the individual would come with: diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma, heart disease(s) or certain cancers.

Why do so many individuals in this community experience similar situations?

A 2009 study An explanation suggests. For comparison purposes”AIn an exposure study of an urban fence line community (neighboring an oil refinery) and a non-industrial community focused on breast cancer and environmental justice pollution, the two sites selected were Richmond and Bolinas.

These were their reported results.:

Eighty compounds were found outdoors in Richmond and 60 in Bolinas. Richmond stock was generally higher. Richmond Vanadium and Nickel Levels from Oil Refinery and Shipping Heavy Oil Burns; These ratings were among the highest in the state. Nearly half of Richmond homes exceed California’s annual ambient air quality standards for PM2.5. Outdoor-indoor measurements were significantly correlated with industry- and traffic-related PM2.5, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, elemental carbon, metals and sulfates.

As the health care professional I shadowed, these individuals became ill not because of a specific event or emergency, but because their environment was slowly becoming infected. In such areas Richmond, West Oakland, Bayview Hunters Point, says Jacqueline Canchola-Martinez, environmental justice associate at the UC Berkeley Student Environmental Resource Center, “Toxic facilities and operations are located within these communities and/or where these communities are driven. These areas often have reduced access to “green spaces and affordable healthy foods.” As a result, individuals living in these areas are at increased risk of serious chronic diseases and lack the resources and healthy environment necessary to address them.

But this is not just a toxic environment issue; The big problem is who this affects – or in other words, who is targeted.

Richmond, like all other cities in California (and the US), is predominantly non-white, and accounts for a significant portion of that non-white population. At or below the poverty line.

According to a 2022 article published by UC San Diego, “New evidence suggests California’s environmental policies protect whites,” a recent study found that “low-income communities with fully functioning economies are consistently exposed to more pollution…[for] These neighborhoods saw relatively fresh air. [COVID] shut down” [3].

However, while income is often seen as a reason why individuals are unable to leave their dangerous neighborhoods, this is clearly not the whole story. Even when considering income inequality, the way pollution is distributed is not equal for everyone.

Interestingly, “there are racial and ethnic disparities in how our economy creates and distributes pollution,” says Jennifer Berney. Marshall Sanders Chancellor’s Chair in International Climate Policy and Research in the School of Global Policy and Strategy, saidIncome explains only 15 percent of the disproportionate reduction in air pollution.“It appears in non-white communities during the period of control;

We see this intentional bias in the distribution of pollution even in the ways we use it every day. KQED article“America’s highway system is a monument to environmental racism and a history of injustice,” provides one of the many stories of dangerous infrastructure wreaking havoc on non-white communities:Interstates are built around black and brown neighborhoods, reinforcing racial segregation and excluding people of color. Some interstates bisect neighborhoods. Expressways connected predominantly white commuters seeking homosexuality in the suburbs to offices in the cities they had fled.

What’s more, Canchola-Martinez says, what most people fail to realize is that “Environmental racism is associated with many other “-isms”. Colonialism, capitalism, imperialism, sexism, etc. Environmental racism doesn’t just happen because one person makes a single decision. I think it’s very common in this society (especially in the West) that it’s just included in the way we do things. And given how embedded environmental racism is in other societal issues, it can seem complex and difficult to address.

But, according to Canchola-Martinez, community-based organizations and the “everyday person” are the drivers of change. “There are many opportunities for students to become part of the environmental justice movement. In terms of holding big actors and polluters accountable (see the Pepsi movement on Berkeley campus) and demanding the right to learn and collect environmental racism, there is a lot of power to be used.

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