Perpetuating Inequality and Illness Through Environmental Injustice

Nick Redmond, MJLST Staffer

In Sidney D. Watson’s Lessons from Ferguson and Beyond, published in issue 1 of MJLST’s 18th volume, the author focuses on issues of inherent racial bias in access to health care for African Americans, and how the Affordable Care Act may be able to help. The author “explores the structural, institutional, and interpersonal biases that operate in the health care system and that exacerbate Black/white health disparities.” The article’s focus on health care in particular is a critical component of inequality in the U.S., but it also only briefly touches on another important piece of the disparity puzzle: environmental justice. Conversations about environmental justice have taken place in multiple contexts, and in many ways serve to emphasize the multiple facets of racial disparity in the U.S., including police violence, access to health care, access to education, and other issues which are all influenced by the accessibility and the dangers of our built environment.

Such systemic inequalities can include access to public transportation and competitive employment, but they can also be problems of proximity to coal plants or petroleum refineries or even a lack of proximity to public natural spaces for healthy recreation. Lack of access to safe, clean, and enjoyable public parks, for instance, can serve to exacerbate the prevalence of diabetes and obesity, and even take a toll on the mental health of residents trapped in concrete jungles (which the article refers to as “social determinants” of poor health). Though there is some indication that environmental factors can harm neighborhoods regardless of income, industrial zones and polluted environments tend to lie just around the corner from low-income neighborhoods and disproportionately affect those who live there, primarily communities of color.

Often the result of urban development plans, housing prices, and even exclusionary zoning, issues of environmental justice are an insidious form of inequality that are often on the periphery of our national political conversations, if addressed at all. Indeed, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Civil rights (established in 1993) has not once made a formal finding of discrimination, despite President Bill Clinton’s executive order which made it the duty of federal agencies to consider environmental justice in their actions. When the primary federal agency tasked with ensuring access to environmental justice appears to be asleep at the wheel, what recourse do communities have? The answer, it seems, is depressingly little.

A high profile example in our current discourse, environmental justice appears to have failed Flint, Michigan, and it seems likely that the issue won’t be resolved any time soon. Other examples like Columbus, Mississippi and Anniston, Alabama, are becoming more and more prevalent at a disturbingly high rate. Impoverished people with little political or legal recourse struggle against the might of the booming natural gas industry and new advances in hydraulic fracturing, and as water runs out these communities will be the first to feel the squeeze of rising food prices and access to the most essential resource on the planet.

At risk of sounding apocalyptic, there is some hope. National groups like the NRDC or the ACLU have long litigated these issues with success, and more local or regional groups like the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy or the Southern Environmental Law Center have made enormous impacts for communities of color and the public at large. But as Sidney Watson states at the end of her article: “[w]e need to talk about race, health, and health care. We need to take action to reduce and eliminate racial inequities in health care.” These same sentiments apply to our built environment and the communities that we have pushed to the periphery to take the brunt of the harmful effects of our dirty technologies and waste. Few people would choose to live near a coal plant; those who are forced to do so are often trapped in an endless cycle of illness, poverty, and segregation.

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