Anti-Racism and Environmental Work – Campus Discussions and Impact

By: Madison Shaff

Pace’s weekly colloquium on October 29, 2020 was hosted by Elisabeth Haub School of Law’s professors to discuss anti-racism and environmental work.[1] The event opened with an outline of ways that environmental racism manifests in America today and an overview of the environmental justice movement. Participants discussed the fact that the environmental justice movement aims to dismantle and shed light to the systems that allow some to be more disadvantaged because of race, gender, country of origin, socioeconomic status, etc.[2]

The discussion then moved to address the different ways that the environmental justice movement shifts its priorities in accordance with the presidential changes of power, yet these priorities are consistently not implemented into tangible change. Both sides of the political divide have been guilty of this. For instance, the Obama Administration reaffirmed its commitment to environmental justice issues, but no initiatives addressing environmental racism were passed in the House of Representatives nor in the Senate during his two terms. Then, similar in impact but different in intention, the Trump Administration rolled back environmental justice to low priority issues, as shown by cuts to the EPA budget and the highly notable quote, “We’ll be fine with the environment, we can leave a little bit…”[3]

Without legislative change, the issues persist. One ongoing issue of high importance is the siting of hazardous waste in communities of color or low income, which unsurprisingly results in a disproportionate impact on the health of these communities.[4] Some of these impacts take the form of drops in fertility, developmental issues in children, and lead poisoning.[5] Lead poisoning was a strong focus during the discussion because of its “toxic legacy.” The “legacy” refers to the finding that lead poisoning is connected to likelihood to end up in the prison system and likelihood to be the victim of police brutality.[6]

But, how did we get here? This was the main question the moderators asked the group. The answer the moderators pointed to is a foundational system in our society that has fueled segregation. This system is built on “racial capitalism” and the remnants of slavery, where there is a group that holds power and determines another as “disposable,” thus being tasked with carrying the toxic burdens of that society. This system has taken several tangible forms, one of which is the legal system that fueled red lining and segregation of housing in America.[7] This systematic segregation, in conjunction with the toxic siting, led to areas in communities of color being named “asthma alley” and “cancer alley.”[8] Another form was the later militarization in response to peaceful protests at the Dakota Access Pipeline, which was a fight for indigenous lands and ultimately indigenous sovereignty.[9]

All of these issues pointed to the idea that community health is a way to determine the impacts of racism in our society. The moderators went on to illustrate that in almost every way, “the health status of people of color is worse than their white counterparts.”[10] Environmentally, this looks like higher rates of asthma due to exposure to toxic air, diseases due to lack of access to clean water, and higher rates of diabetes and malnourishment due to the creation of food desserts. Additionally, this manifests in negative mental health impacts caused by constantly fighting a racist environment or workplace as seen through diseases related to stress and anxiety like higher blood pressures, heart disease, and even cancers.[11] These health issues are then exacerbated by the fact that people of color’s medical needs are often ignored and access to health care is increasingly difficult because of the privatization.[12] In current contexts, even as all sections of the world have been impacted by Coronavirus, none have been hit quite as hard as communities of color because of the continued impact of these root issues, as well as a general apathy for these concerns.

The discussion was not without solutions, however. The presenters urged those in attendance to vote with racial and environmental justice in mind, advocate for universal health care, advocate for yourself in health settings, and practice healthy lifestyles, for both physical and mental health. To this extent, I would add that we as lawyers can play an instrumental role in the fight for equitable change – and should do everything in our power to listen, learn, and improve our communities.

Image from Redefy

[1] Weekly Pace/Maryland Environmental Colloquium, Anti-Racism and Environmental Work, Elisabeth Haub School of Law (Oct. 29, 2020), https://pace.hosted.panopto.com/Panopto/Pages/Sessions/List.aspx#folderID=%22d70e197c-3b5a-457b-b97f-ac2c010f54f9%22.

[2] Learn About Environmental Justice, U.S. E.P.A., https://www.epa.gov/environmentaljustice/learn-about-environmental-justice#:~:text=Environmental%20justice%20(EJ)%20is%20the,environmental%20laws%2C%20regulations%20and%20policies (defining environmental justice as “as the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies”).

[3] Regulation Buster Trump Takes Aim at EPA, CNBC (Nov. 10, 2016) https://www.cnbc.com/2016/11/09/regulation-buster-trump-takes-aim-at-the-epa.html?__source=Facebook.

[4] Manuel Pastor, Jr., James L. Sadd, & Rachel Morello-Frosch, Waiting to Inhale: The Demographics of Toxic Air Release Facilities in 21st-Century California, 85 Soc. Sci. Q., 421, 436 (2004).

[5] Robert D. Bullard et. al., Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty: Why Race Still Matters After All of These Years, 1 Env. L. 371, 378 (2008).

[6] Howard W. Mielke, Lead’s Toxic Urban Legacy and Children’s Health, GeoTimes (May 2005), http://www.geotimes.org/may05/feature_leadlegacy.html.

[7] Elizabeth McClure et al., The Legacy of Redlining in the Effect of Foreclosures on Detroit Residents’ Self-Rated Health, 55 Health & Place 9, 11 (2019).

[8] Jessica Snow, Examining the Intersection of Environmental Justice, Chronic Disease, and Pandemics; How a Mobile Health App Could Improve Health Outcomes and Inform Policy, Master’s Projects and Capstones USFCA (Aug. 14, 2020), https://repository.usfca.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2269&context=capstone.

[9] Colloquium, supra note 1 (discussing the point that respect of indigenous sovereignty must be central to antiracist environmental movements).

[10] Colloquium, supra note 1 (discussing factors that included: shorter life expectancy, higher infant mortality, and higher ills that are accompanied by poverty).

[11] Khiara M. Bridges, Implicit Bias and Racial Disparities in Health Care, ABA Human Rights Magazine, https://www.americanbar.org/groups/crsj/publications/human_rights_magazine_home/the-state-of-healthcare-in-the-united-states/racial-disparities-in-health-care/ (last visited Nov. 7, 2020).

[12] Id.

One comment

  1. I think this colloquium brought up interesting issues regarding how we frame environmental advocacy. As you point out, environmental justice and racial justice are inseparable, particularly when it comes to human health. Given the widespread and lasting health effects of environmental racism on communities of color, framing environmental advocacy as a form of public health advocacy would seem to be a natural next step. This convergence of racial justice, environmental justice, and healthcare justice also highlights the interconnected nature of various justice movements. Keeping this in mind, I think it is imperative that we as environmental advocates consider the broader impacts of environmentalism in relation to other justice movements and consider how we can build coalitions with other movements.

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