Environmental Racism

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By Nicholas Scott

[Image: High-Level Atomic Waste Dump Targeted at Skull Valley Goshute Indian Reservation in Utah]

Even with the vast improvements to environmental protection over the past few decades, there are still more than 1.3 billion people worldwide that live in hazardous and unhealthy physical environments. The generation and transportation of unsafe waste has been known to cause significant health, environmental, legal, political, and ethical dilemmas.

The systematic destruction of indigenous people’s land, the poisoning of Native Americans on reservations, Africans in the Niger Delta, African-Americans in Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley,” and Puerto Ricans on the Island of Vieques all have their roots in economic exploitation, racial oppression, devaluation of human life and the natural environment, and corporate greed. Due to unequal power arrangements, the rich have been able to get rid of their toxic waste by exploiting the poor. Developing nations sometimes have no choice but to allow the shipping of hazardous waste into their borders. Most people of colored communities in the U.S. and poor nations around the world are forced to sacrifice their public health in order to create jobs and promote economic development.  Such waste often results in an increased number of children diagnosed with asthma, brain cancer, mesothelioma, and other serious health problems.

This unfair treatment can be described as “environmental racism” and “radioactive colonialism.” There has been a direct correlation between the exploitation of land and the exploitation of people.  The following article offers some insight in regard to the matter, stating:

Institutional racism has allowed people of color communities to exist as colonies, areas that form dependent (and unequal) relationships to the dominant white society or “Mother Country” with regard to their social, economic, legal, and environmental administration. Writing more than three decades ago, Carmichael and Hamilton, in their work Black Power, offered the “internal” colonial model to explain racial inequality, political exploitation, and social isolation of African Americans. Carmichael and Hamilton write:

The economic relationship of America’s black communities . . . reflects their colonial status. The political power exercised over those communities go hand in glove with the economic deprivation experienced by the black citizens. Historically, colonies have existed for the sole purpose of enriching, in one form or another, the “colonizer”; the consequence is to maintain the economic dependency of the “colonized.”

Institutional racism reinforces internal colonialism. Government institutions buttress this system of domination. Institutional racism defends, protects, and enhances the social advantages and privileges of rich nations. Whether by design or benign neglect, communities of color (ranging from the urban ghettos and barrios to rural “poverty pockets” to economically impoverished Native American reservations and developing nations) face some of the worst environmental problems. The most polluted communities are also the communities with crumbling infrastructure, economic disinvestment, deteriorating housing, inadequate schools, chronic unemployment, high poverty, and overloaded health care systems.

Today, millions of Americans have an increased awareness of the threat of chemical, biological, and environmental toxins. The tragic events of 9/11, the Anthrax scare, and even more recently; the catastrophic events in Japan, have heightened concern and fear of potential exposure. What most people don’t know, however, is that toxic waste exposure is not new for many people of color. So many communities are forced to live next to chemical industries that spew poisons into their air, water, and land. For these people, asthma, mesothelioma, disease, and cancer are just side effects that come with the territory. And with the mesothelioma life expectancy (http://www.mesotheliomasymptoms.com/mesothelioma-life-expectancy) lasting only 14 months, the results can be devastating. These communities endure a form of “toxic” terror twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week.

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