Black People and the Environment #1


madison market

Madison, Wisconsin’s Bounty

I spent a good number of my adult years in places that had vibrant farmers markets: Brooklyn, New York and Madison, Wisconsin, for example. Since moving to Michigan a couple of years ago, I’ve been thinking more and more about black people’s relationship to the earth. One of the reasons that I was excited about moving to this part of the country was because I learned that Michigan’s farmers markets accept public assistance vouchers, cards, or tokens and even enables people to stretch their food dollars so that they have access to more fresh fruits and veggies. Read about Double Up here.

In thinking about wonderful programs like Double Up I also had to consider the other side of the proverbial coin. I considered what (too) many black and brown people actually eat on a regular basis; what kinds of and how much exercise we get; where we live. For the purposes of this particular post I considered what some of the environmental factors affecting black and brown Americans are. Why are so many of us plagued by largely avoidable dis-eases like high blood pressure, diabetes, fibroids, cancers? With all the news around the Flint Water Crisis shortly after my arrival here I began to think about our physical environments as possibly one spoke in a many pronged wheel called Environmental Racism, which Vann R. Newkirk II from The Atlantic proposes is the New Jim Crow.

Before I get to some examples of environmental racism, I’ll pass along a pretty straight forward definition of the term from “”:

Environmental Racism: The placement of low-income or minority communities in the proximity of environmentally hazardous or degraded environments, such as toxic waste, pollution and urban decay.

Forms of environmental racism include, but are not limited to:

  • greater probability of exposure to environmental hazards
  • uneven negative impacts of environmental procedures
  • uneven negative impacts of environmental policies
  • intentional targeting and zoning of toxic facilities in minority communities
  • segregation of minority workers in hazardous jobs
  • minority communities with little access to or insufficient maintenance of environmental amenities, for example, parks
  • and disproportionate access to environmental services such as garbage removal.

Now, onto a few examples of Environmental Racism:



A nail after one month of exposure to Detroit water (above) and Flint River water (below) Each nail was rinsed in flowing water before taking the picture.

It’s important to recognize that the Flint Water Crisis is just one of numerous instances in which the lives and health of poor black and brown people come last in the list of considerations with regard to corporate profit potential. A few months ago I learned about Cancer Alley, an area along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans in Louisiana, so named because of the cluster of cancer patients living in the shadow of several industrial plants. Again, this is but one of too many areas to name in the U.S. where poor people of color are regularly subjected to unconscionable disregard for their lives in the face of the U.S.’s endemic racism and corporate greed.


A mound of oil drums near the Baton Rouge ExxonMobil Refinery, 1972

The black community’s affluence is not always as much of a factor as color in cases of environmental racism. Consider Houston, Texas where studies beginning in the late 1970s and continuing into the 2000s show Houston’s black and brown neighborhoods bearing the brunt of city-owned and privately-owned landfills, incinerators, and garbage transfer stations. This pattern has persisted for more than eight decades.

Get more info about environmental injustices facing black and brown people in Houston at Dr. Robert Bullard’s (the father of Environmental Justice) website.

Here are some other examples:

Warren County, North Carolina

Racism and environmental justice unified for the first time during the 1983 citizen opposition to a proposed PCB landfill in Warren County, North Carolina after North Carolina state officials decided to bury soil contaminated with toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in Afton, a small town in Warren County.

Between June 1978 and August 1978, 30,000 gallons of PCB-contaminated waste were illegally deposited along 210 miles of North Carolina roads. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared the PCBs a threat to public health and required the state to remove the polluted waste.

In 1979, the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources and EPA Region 4 selected Warren County as the site to deposit the PCB-contaminated soil that was collected from the roadsides.

Why there, you ask? Warren County is one of the six counties along the “black belt” of North Carolina and as such, is significantly poorer than the rest of the state. For example, in the early 1980s the residents in Warren County earned an average per capita income of $6,984 compared to $9,283 for the rest of the state. In addition, in 1980, the population of Warren County was 54.5% African-American.

The site of the landfill was not scientifically feasible due to the shallow water table, with the drinking water only 5–10 feet below the surface.

In 1982, the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People filed a lawsuit in the district courts to block the landfill. The residents lost the case in court.

In September 1982, the outraged citizens of Warren County, joined by civil rights groups, environmental leaders, and clergymen protested the first truckloads of PCB contaminated soil. During the protest, over 500 people were arrested and jailed. Despite the protests and scientific evidence that the plan would cause drinking water contamination, the Warren County PCB Landfill was built and the toxic waste was placed in the landfill.

After nearly two decades of suspected leaks, state and federal sources paid a contractor $18 million to detoxify the PCB contaminated soil in Warren County.

Check out this short documentary on the crisis and the community’s response to it:

Chicago, Illinois

Altgeld Gardens is a housing community located in south Chicago that was built in 1945 on an abandoned landfill to accommodate returning African American WW II veterans. Surrounded by 53 toxic facilities and 90% of the city’s landfills, the Altgeld Gardens area became known as a “toxic doughnut.”

With 90% of its population African-American, and 65% below the poverty level, Altgeld Gardens is considered a classic example of environmental racism.

The known toxins and pollutants affecting the Altgeld Gardens area include mercury, ammonia gas, lead, dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), heavy metals, and xylene. The residents of Altgeld Gardens are surrounded by landfills, a chemical waste incinerator, and piles of loose trash.

In 1984, a study by Illinois Public Health Sector revealed excessive rates of prostate, bladder, and lung cancer.

Additionally, medical records have indicated (1) high rates of children born with brain tumors, (2) high rates of fetuses that had to be aborted after tests revealed that the brains were developing outside the skull, and (3) higher rates of asthma, ringworm, and other ailments.

Despite evidence of health problems, the residents of Altgeld Gardens have not been relocated to another public housing project.

altgeld housing

1974 gas tank leak forced Altgeld residents from their homes

Chester, Pennsylvania

Chester, Pennsylvania provides an example of “social, political, and economic forces that shape the disproportionate distribution of environmental hazards in poor communities of color”.

Although Delaware County, an area with a population of 500,000 that, excluding Chester, is 91% white, Chester is 65% African American, with the highest minority population and poverty rate in Delaware County. It is also the recipient of a disproportionate amount of environmental risks and hazards.

Chester has five large waste facilities including a trash incinerator, a medical waste incinerator, and a sewage treatment plant. These waste sites in Chester have a total permitted capacity of 2 million tons of waste per year while the rest of Delaware County has a capacity of merely 1,400 tons per year.

One of the waste sites located in Chester is the Westinghouse incinerator, which burns ALL of the municipal waste from the ENTIRE county and SURROUNDING states.

Not surprisingly, the cancer rate in this area is 2.5 times higher than it is anywhere else in Pennsylvania. The mortality rate is also 40% higher than the rest of Delaware County and the child mortality rate is the highest.

New Orleans, Louisiana

At the time of Hurricane Katrina 60.5% of New Orleans residents were African American, nearly 50% higher than the rest of the United States.

We cannot overlook the fact that the stage for what happened in New Orleans was set decades before the catastrophe. Pre-existing racial disparities in wealth within New Orleans worsened the outcome of Hurricane Katrina for minority populations.

For example, institutionalized racial segregation of neighborhoods left black and brown  members more likely to live in low-lying areas that were more vulnerable to the devastating effects of the hurricane.

Additionally, hurricane evacuation plans relied heavily on the use of cars and personal vehicles. However, because black and brown populations are less likely to own cars, some people had no choice but to stay behind, while white majority communities were able to escape.

A report commissioned by the U.S. House of Representatives found that political leaders failed to consider the fact that “100,000 city residents had no cars and relied on public transit”, and the city’s failure to complete its mandatory evacuation led to hundreds of deaths.

In the months following the disaster, political, religious, and civil rights groups, celebrities (remember Kanye‘s pronouncement), and New Orleans residents spoke out against what they believed was racism on the part of the United States government.

hurricane katrina

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina

Detroit, Michigan

The southwest region of Detroit, in the zip code of 48217, there is heavy industry, led by Marathon Oil Refinery, and including Severstal Steel, US Steel, Detroit Edison Coal Plant, U.S. Gypsum (USG), and the Detroit Wastewater Plant (the single largest sewage plant in the U.S.), all within a one mile radius of one another surrounding a community of about 25,000 people, according to the National Environmental Justice & Community Partnership Program and Sierra Club Detroit. More importantly, they are within hundreds of feet of neighborhoods and schools.

These industries pollute with a variety of effluents, which impact local air and waterways. For example, there’s a mountain of petroleum coke, a byproduct of Marathon Oil’s tar sands processing, on the edge of the Detroit River. The mountain is a full city block long and stands three stories high.

Despite outrage from local businesses and residents, the EPA says the material is not carcinogenic, although it’s not clear what effect this material would have if significant amounts entered the Great Lakes.

petroleum coke detroit

Petroleum Coke at the Detroit River

A little background, please? In the 1950s, heavy industry began to grow in this area and workers moved to be close to their jobs.

According to one of those workers, Delores Leonard, when she and her husband bought their house on Bassett Street in 1955, it was one of the few places that African Americans could buy homes (the zip code is currently 85 percent African American, 10 percent Caucasian, 5 percent Latino).

She also remembers that people in the neighborhood would cover their cars with tarps to protect them from the soot raining down from nearby industries and pitting the paint. No one thought, at the time, that it could harm their health.

Now, this community is rife with cancers, asthma, skin problems, and cardiovascular disease.

Big business at its best and worst: Marathon announced in 2007 that it was going to begin a $2.2 billion expansion to enable the plant to process tar sands. There was a hope for jobs, but it has been estimated that Detroiters received fewer than five of those jobs – and those few went to residents from other areas of the city.

At the same time, Marathon requested and received a more than $1 million tax abatement from the city of Detroit, while 48217 received no relief and watched the dust cloud thicken and their property values continue their freefall.

Many have lived in that community their whole lives and are unwilling to leave. Others simply can’t afford to as their home’s value is not enough to allow them to move. Homeowners in the area list their homes for sale in 48217 as low as $2,300, $4,900, and $6,000. I was, in fact, just last week, reading an article about a young white man who bought a house in Detroit for…wait for it…$500. Read the article here.

In order to get government action, the residents of 48217 attended meetings with the city, and then took their own environmental samples, which showed 20 toxic gases, including ethyl benzene, a product of oil refinement.

A silver lining for some? This positive link between blatant pollution and Marathon Oil brought the company to the table, and the company subsequently agreed to buy out many homeowners that were being adversely affected by their operations.

Since that time, Marathon Oil has contracted to buy out 13 homes at Liebold and Pleasant, and 480 homes in nearby Oakwood Heights (both in 48217).

Many of those people wanted to stay and have Marathon clean up its operations so their neighborhood could be livable again.

Duplin County, North Carolina

Most recently I was watching a documentary called What the Health? (available on Netflix) about big business’s role (with government sanctioning) in our nation’s current health crisis. One of the communities featured in the film is Duplin County. Many of the residents are plagued by diarrhea, eye irritation, depression, asthma, impaired neurobehavioral and pulmonary function, and cancer.

Who lives there? Twenty-five percent of Duplin County residents are black, and over 20 percent are Hispanic. An analysis conducted by WaterKeeper Alliance found that out of 2,246 pig concentrated animal feeding operations in the state, only 12 have been required to obtain permits under the Clean Water Act. The rest operate under lax state permit guidelines. A 2014 study conducted by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that black people are 1.54 times more likely to reside near these hog operations in North Carolina than white people, Hispanics are 1.39 times more likely, and Native Americans are 2.18 times more likely.

Again, these are but a few of the numerous ways that the environment can be seen as evidence of the way a racist ideology grounded in capitalist greed undergirds much of the U.S.’s past and current housing policies with regard to black and brown people.


About alligatorwoods

I'm an artist, a mom, a teacher, a reader, a learner, a writer, an adventurer! This is where I get to share my love of African and African diasporic literature, visual art, and film as well as nature, spirituality, and travel. I also share my own art creations inspired by the "above mentioned" (check the gallery). Updates and news are always happening so please check back often! Peace!
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