Given recent awareness of the Flint Water Crisis, I think this event deserves greater analytical and political attention. Despite some media focus, this event seemed to go almost unnoticed by most of my friends and the greater world of social media. Little did people know, the water crisis started almost two years ago and caused significant amounts of lead to be detected in the public water supply. Typically, in the United States, there are less than 200,000 cases of lead poisoning each year. Unfortunately, the Flint Water Crisis greatly intensified that number, especially among the local African-American community. In addition to lead poisoning, many Flint citizens also suffered from Legionnaries’ disease, which has already proven its fatality.
The point is: some American citizens are disproportionately affected by environmental waste, environmental hazards, and outright social wrongdoing. The Flint Water Crisis is a near textbook example of the cause behind the Environmental Justice upheaval. While it is difficult to pinpoint a specific start date for the movement, Environmental Justice activism began in the latter half of the 20th century to combat the environmental inequality faced by ethnic minorities and lower social classes. Social upheaval caused the Environmental Protection Agency to develop law that would attempt to address the inequality gap in environmental degradation.
According to the EPA, “Environmental Justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, natural origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. Fair treatment means that no group of people should bear a disproportionate share of the negative environmental consequences resulting from industrial, governmental and commercial operations or policies. Meaningful involvement means that: (1) people have an opportunity to participate in decisions about activities that may affect their environment and/or health; (2) the public’s contribution can influence the regulatory agency’s decision; (3) their concerns will be considered in the decision making process; and (4) the decision makers seek out and facilities the involvement of those potentially affected” (www.epa.gov).
Based off this definition alone, America is having an obvious problem abiding by this law. Moreover, in many instances when this law is taken into account it is reactionary, not preventive. This means that in some cases, it is already too late to respond. Numerous members of Flint’s community have already been forced into giving their lives because of the inadequacy of environmental justice law to prevent against environmental harm.
What I really want to get across, though, is that this environmental injustice is not just occurring in Flint, Michigan, but around the United States and greater global population. Not to discredit the tragedy facing the residents of Flint, but this case is just one example of environmental injustice that was fortunate enough to make it into the news. This evil is occurring constantly throughout our neighborhoods, the homes of our friends, and the homes of our families.
Native people, especially, have become primary victims to the atrocities of environmental injustice. There are the unfortunately obvious actions committed to American Indians (i.e. forced removal from home-lands and put into reservations), but there are also lesser known calamities that occur on a day-to-day basis among Native populations. As some of you may be aware, the Flint Water Crisis almost pails in comparison to the water disaster in the Navajo reservation, a crisis that has been going on for decades and has had absolutely no attention in mainstream news and media. Even more extreme examples of environmental injustice are the persistent horrors of uranium mining, nuclear weapon testing, and dumping of radioactive waste that have been going on for generations in reservations across the United States. Ethnic minorities, particularly Native American people, are bearing the brunt of development, industrialization, and the negative externalities of attaining the American dream.
What it comes down to is that this is not just environmental injustice, but environmental racism.
Unfortunately, time and time again, America has proven itself not to be the almighty paradise. Scratch that. It can be paradise, but just for some people, not everyone. The American dream has become far too different from the American reality. Citizens of Flint, tribal members of American Indian reservations, and countless other poor colored communities are falling ill because of the environmental harm targeted in their area. Even worse, these people are usually not the ones to see the associated benefits of development and the possible positive externalities that may result. Many environmental injustice atrocities are committed by companies that are damaging the health of local ecosystems and selling those products or developments to upper class or middle class buyers, leaving the affected communities unable to reap benefits from their suffering. Obviously, there is something very, very wrong with this paradigm. Poor colored communities should not be preyed upon because they cannot afford to live elsewhere or because they were forced into reservations, nor should they be ignored because they do not speak English and cannot afford lawyers. It should not be necessary, but America needs a reminder that this environmental wrongdoing is affecting real people—mothers, fathers, grandparents, students, future politicians, future entertainers, the list goes on.
As the forefathers of this nation once wrote:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [and women] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator[s] with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
I think we need to hold the Declaration of Independence more accountable. I think we need to hold American agencies more accountable. I think we need to hold companies and guilty individuals more accountable. Environmental injustice needs to stop. Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness are impossible without clean water, clean airways, and clean ecosystems. Environmental health and the health of all citizens are necessary for the success of our country. That is the true American reality. A functioning society and economy are dependent on the health of everyone, especially the people of color in affected communities.
Despite lackluster attempts to solve environmental injustice, it has become coded in the social and economic order. Centuries of capitalism and discrimination have forced this criminality into the American tradition. In that case, how do you fight the system? What do you do when the law just isn’t enough? How do you fight the depravity that has simply become the “American way of doing things?” The same goes for racism and discrimination within this country. White Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, Mexican Americans, Native Americans, etc. are granted “equal rights” under law, but it is clearly not the case. Unfortunately, fundamental rights in American society have become privileges enjoyed by few. Environmental justice should not fall into that. It should not be considered a privilege.
Minorities should not have to convince the rest of America that this is not right, but unfortunately, that is what this has come to. The even worse realization is that people of color are often deemed powerless by White America. It takes decades, even centuries, for progress in this country. With that being said, there seems to be very little I can offer, but I do know that I am really, really frustrated, and doing something is always better than doing nothing.
Please, everybody, do something. If you are a minority affected by environmental injustice, or if you aren’t but you care about the cause, do something. Whether it is raising awareness on social media or hiring a lawyer to represent your community, doing something is better than doing nothing. As depressing as it is, environmental injustice will not cure itself. That has become our job. Present and future generations depend on each and every one of us. Your health, your neighbor’s health, and America’s health are calling you into action.