Environmental racism describes the idea that non-white people are disproportionately exposed to toxic waste, agricultural chemicals, air pollution and drinking water contamination. Environmental racism is well-documented. Most of the time, though, instances of environmental racism are described as reckless individual acts of pollution or poisoning, instead of symptoms of a structural problem directly linked to white supremacy.
White supremacy, unlike the term “white privilege,” destabilizes the innocence of whiteness. It reminds us of the violent domination of Black and brown bodies through genocide and enslavement, which were both necessary in granting today’s white people their unearned rights, privileges and resources. White supremacy is much deeper than the Ku Klux Klan, Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan and Rudyard Kipling’s musings in “The White Man’s Burden.” It is embedded in the consciousness of a large majority of the world’s population, influences the beauty standards and even informs whose lives matter. Most importantly though, white supremacy facilitates the premature death of Black and brown bodies by devaluing their existence.
In the context of environmental racism, white supremacy simply exempts white people from proportional exposure to toxic waste because they are “too good” to be around it. Additionally, if money can be made by rerouting a source of pollution to a Black or brown neighborhood, it will be. The lives and well-being of Black and brown people are essentially sacrificed to afford white people a safe and clean environment to live in.
This can be seen in the case of the Dakota Access Pipeline, where pushback from the primarily white town of Bismarck, North Dakota, prompted the pipeline to be rerouted through the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. It can also be seen in Flint, Michigan, where the financial success of the mostly white state of Michigan took precedence over the health of the mostly Black and poor city of Flint. Frankly, white people are willing to inflict violence on Black and brown bodies in the form of environmental pollution in order to keep themselves away from contamination.
Those of you that are thinking, “Well everybody in Flint wasn’t Black. So how was the poisoning of the city’s water supply an act of white supremacy?”
The truth is, since the white people in Flint are poor, they’re subjected to live in the same conditions as the Black and brown people in the city. Ultimately, because of this, their lives were also rendered disposable. A key component of whiteness involves distancing one’s white body away from Black and brown ones as a sign of status. White people who aren’t financially equipped to relocate to affluent suburbs or neighborhoods get lumped in with the Black and brown people in impoverished areas. This is what I like to call “disposability by association.”
Current work surrounding environmental racism has focused more on identifying exposure rather than actually solving the problem of disproportionate environmental pollution. Community-based organizations are often forced to work on a case-by-case basis, targeting specific polluters instead of the entire system that allows these corporations to pollute. Even though justice may be served in one community, white supremacy enables hundreds of other facilities across the country to dump, spill and spray toxic waste into communities composed of primarily Black and brown people.
The reality is, the only way to solve environmental racism is to dismantle white supremacy. This would mean shifting the currently unscrupulous thought paradigm of our nation to one of truth and justice. The first thing the United States could do is hold itself accountable for its ultimate sin by granting fiscal reparations to all citizens who are descendants of Africans who were brought to this country by the transatlantic slave trade. Next, we have to start making white people live next to the pollution they are responsible for. Once they start to see the adverse health effects it causes, things might start to change. It might spark a new demand for renewable energy, less wasteful production tactics and proper waste disposal.
History shows that things don’t usually become a problem until rich white people are negatively affected. So, the next time Los Angeles wants to build a trash incinerator, put it in Beverley Hills instead of Boyle Heights. As long as the dominant ideology in this country is centered around preserving white lives instead of Black and brown ones, landfills, oil refineries and uranium mining operations will more often find themselves strategically located in non-white communities.
Jibril Kyser is a third-year student at UC Berkeley studying plant and soil sciences.