In 2015, an Indian rapper Sofia Ashraf’s song "Kodaikanal Won't", brought India’s attention to a case of proven mercury contamination in the hill station Kodaikanal by Hindustan Unilever’s thermometer factory.
The factory which imported mercury from the United States, and exported finished thermometers to markets in the US and Europe, was originally situated in the US and was moved to India in 1982 following increased awareness in developed countries of polluting industries. This double standard as to what practices are acceptable in certain communities, villages or cities and not in others is environmental racism.
While the word racism traditionally evokes images of the Apartheid, segregation, and police brutality, environmental racism is casually swept under the rug. This is a form of racism wherein policies and economies force certain communities to live near toxic waste such as sewage works, mines, landfills, power stations, major roads and emitters of airborne particulate matter. As a result, these communities suffer greater rates of health problems attendant on hazardous pollutants.
Be it poisoned tap water in Flint, Michigan, Rat-hole coalmines in Meghalaya, India or toxic waste dumps in Rio Grande, Brazil, people of color and low-income persons have borne greater environmental and health risks than the society at large in their neighborhoods, workplace, and playgrounds.
Environmental racism has its roots in the global supply chain model of doing business. Many technological innovations take place in the global North, while production and manufacturing processes take place in the global South. Therefore, a disproportionate amount of pollution in the South comes from foreign, rather than domestic, industries.
"All zip codes are not equal"
While Flint is often quoted as a textbook case of environmental racism, let us consider the city of Detroit where 83% of the population is black. It is home to the most polluted zip code in the state: 48217.
This area is surrounded by a lot of industries like salt mining, steel production, oil refining and coal burning. Not coincidentally, this region has the highest number of children’s asthma cases in the state.
And its not just the poor neighborhoods which get affected. A study by Robert Bullard, considered to the leading expert on environmental racism showed that black Americans making $50-60,000 a year were more likely to live in polluted areas than their white counterparts making $10,000.
“Zip code is the most powerful predictor of health. And all communities and all zip codes are not created equal. “ - Robert Bullard
A twenty-year comparative study led by sociologist Bullard determined “race to be more important than socioeconomic status in predicting the location of the nation’s commercial hazardous waste facilities”(Bullard et al. 2007).
His research found, for example, that African American children are five times more likely to have lead poisoning than their Caucasian counterparts, and that a disproportionate number of people of color reside in areas with hazardous waste facilities (Bullard et al. 2007).
And this is how environmental racism plays out. Minority communities have much less political clout and legal resources so regulators often simply ignore them. In fact the US Environmental Protection Agency has a special wing to examine cases of such discrimination. This department has never formally found a single case of environmental racism in its 22-year history.
What can be done?
The gap in health caused by environmental racism stood out in stark detail as the COVID-19 pandemic broke out. At the peak of the first COVID-19 wave across the US, it became abundantly clear that mortality rates among people of color who had gotten infected by the Coronavirus was much higher than those in white communities. Data from US authorities showed that in every age category, black people are dying from COVID at roughly the same rate as white people more than a decade older.
This trend has been seen across the world where low-income and minority families, having faced years of air pollution were the worst affected.
Undoing environmental racism involves facing the uncomfortable truth: that even well-meaning activists working on environmental problems sometimes overlook, even export the actual impact to vulnerable communities.
(Header Image: Erik McGregor/Lightrocket/Getty Images)