Environmental justice is often considered a majority-white and privileged form of social justice we should worry about after tackling more pressing social issues. However, this misconception creates a problematic complacency. It is so easy to disconnect environmental justice from issues of poverty, race and social equity.
In our collective disconnect, we can look at recent lead-poisoning events in Flint, Mich. and Newark, N.J., and conclude that they are isolated events and not part of a much larger public health crisis, yet we fail to see that these responses are nothing but Band-Aids placed on a bullet wound. Flint and Newark are exemplary manifestations of institutionalized neglect, racism and capitalism.
As early as the 1920s, the public health community and the lead industry have been aware of the negative consequences any amount of lead in blood can have on humans: increased development of intellectual disabilities in children, increased risk of hypertension and kidney damage, increased rate of miscarriage and, sadly, so much more. Documents from the Lead Industries Association meetings in the 1950s quote lead officials’ explicit acknowledgement of lead poisoning disproportionately affecting people of color. Because the lead industry deceitfully sold poison through its products to the American public for nearly a century, publicized crises like Flint 2015, Newark 2016 and D.C. 2004 are entirely unsurprising.
How is this neglect possible in our democratic society, you may ask? Consider the nature of large industries, like the lead industry, operating primarily for profit. When a poorly regulated industry is centered around the sale of a product that causes harm to the people it serves, that industry has no incentive to stop pushing its product unless it will hurt its brand name.
The lead industry’s cruelty toward communities of color and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s (R) dismissal of countless red flags are two examples of the blatant environmental racism plaguing our country. This theme extends beyond lead. Consider the devastating effects of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina on the poorest, blackest areas of New Orleans. Consider the boom in asthma in communities of color. These devastating events were all man-made and, through centuries of institutionalized racism, poor minority Americans have been neglected and oppressed by such environmental racism.
What is hardest to grapple with are the systemic injustices leading to this reality. There is poverty driven by racism and segregation condemning African Americans to decrepit housing in industrial areas rife with pollutants. There is continuing discrimination keeping black and Latino people from exercising agency over their own homes. Conservative politicians’ strict adherence to the belief that state authorities can regulate themselves and protect their residents without the federal government’s help and the general neglect of poor communities and communities of color persists to this day. These injustices result in a vicious cycle that further damages stereotypes of African Americans and the poor: By the time lead use in gas and paint was banned in the 1980s, African-American teenagers were suffering from its effects, which included lower IQs, tendency toward behavioral issues and greater rates of violent behavior.
Despite evidence of American lead crises, officials, politicians and journalists continue to refer to these tragedies as issues of politics, infrastructure, economics and the like. And while it is acceptable to acknowledge that these factors play a part in Flint, Newark, New Orleans and Detroit, it is not acceptable to deny and obscure how the health and lives of real individuals are on the line. The people in these communities continue to be treated as numbers, dollars and buzzwords on the tongue of our nation, and their importance fades with the news cycle. We must stop and change our approach.
The essence of public health is to look beyond isolated events and to understand root causes of community health issues. At this point in time, that is not the approach taken for the many environmental health hazards around the country. In our society, large industries prioritize profits over community needs and the damage done to those communities is seen as the inevitability of business. We cannot continue to use our historically unjust systems to justify further injustice. We must stay steadfast in the fight to change the public’s approach to humans.
The cost of eliminating lead from our housing and infrastructure is undoubtedly high and this can lead to complexity in political and economic decision-making. However, we must seek a government that fully understands the disproportionate impact its decisions can have on marginalized populations. We can no longer allow environmental crises to decimate black communities as a result of disconnected policy making. Therefore, we must seek to fully understand these issues and actively push our policymakers to make decisions that fully recognize the dignity of all people.
Jamil Hashmi is a senior in the College. Angela Maske is a freshman in the School of Foreign Service
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