WTH is Environmental Justice Anyway?!

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By Shana Black

If you don’t know exactly what environmental justice is (or never even heard of it) don’t worry, you’re definitely not alone. We at Black Girl in the CLE and The Cleveland Observer had to do some research on this very important topic ourselves. I just finished reading “A Terrible Thing to Waste–Environmental Racism and Its Assault on the American Mind” by Harriet A. Washington. What follows are some of my takeaways as I’m still processing.

What Is It? 

Environmental justice is defined as the fair treatment and involvement of people regardless of race or income in terms of the development and enforcement of environmental laws and policies.  So what does this mean? It may be easier to conceptualize this movement in terms of the examples of environmental injustice, or environmental racism, you are already familiar with. You have probably heard of Hurricane Katrina and know how those most heavily impacted by the levee failures were amongst the Black community. The same goes for the Flint Water Crisis. For years, weary residents of the majority Black town were assured that their water was safe—we now know that that could not have been further from the truth.

However, environmental justice goes beyond these noteworthy examples and even hits much closer to home. Most Clevelanders are familiar with the infamous 1969 Cuyahoga River burning, a local mishap that actually became an international symbol of water pollution and is rumored to have led to the Clean Water Act. In response, Mayor Carl Stokes was one of the first to link pollution to inner-city communities. And, what about City View Center in Garfield Heights, which was literally built on top of a landfill in the early 2000s.

Maybe it’s just a coincidence that 48 percent of the Eastside suburb is Black. Finally, let’s talk about lead in Cleveland. In 2019, the Lead Safe Cleveland Coalition was announced by partners from the City of Cleveland, Cuyahoga County, and various organizations. This coalition aims to combat Cleveland’s staggering child lead poisoning crisis. And if you had not already guessed it, our city’s lead problem affects Black children disproportionately more than their White counterparts. This is largely due to Cleveland’s history of segregation and redlining.

Why Is It Important?

“If you were going to put something in a population to keep them down for generations to come, it would be lead.” – Mona Hanna-Attisha (Detroit Pediatrician)

Studies have shown that even minute exposure to lead can have a grave impact on our children’s school performance and propensity for violence, among other negative side effects; and IQ scores have been linked to a propensity for success. For example, those with low literacy skills are 2 times as likely to be unemployed. The 15-point IQ gap between Blacks and Whites has historically (and falsely) been attributed to genetics.  However, in “A Terrible Thing to Waste,” Washington postulates that environment and exposure are far more likely determinants of IQ. Her research shows that the water, lands, and schools of African American, Hispanic, and Native American communities are far more likely to be affected by pollution and chemicals like lead than those of White communities.

While the affected are often described as low socioeconomic status or poor, do not be fooled. This is not just an issue for poor Black folk. Middle-class Blacks are far more likely to suffer from environmental hazards placed in their communities than middle-class Whites. According to Robert D. Bullard in the book “Dumping in Dixie,” race (not income) is the most crucial factor contributing to the exposure to brain harming toxins. This is definitely an issue that spans the spectrum of the Black community.

Back in Cleveland, decreasing rates of lead poisoning have not signaled a significant improvement in the poisoning of area children. Too put things into perspective, at times our lead levels have exceeded those of the Flint Water Crisis at its height. Such exposure in Cleveland is largely due to old paint in deteriorating housing as opposed to the water supply. Although lead poisoning is primarily highlighted in this article, there is so much to be concerned about in Cleveland. In addition to poisoning and pollution, access to resources like transportation and water can also be considered as environmental justice, also known as environmental racism.

What’s Next?

On a personal note, I have traveled to both New Orleans and Flint to volunteer in response to their national disasters and it is likely you have been involved in alleviating environmental racism in some way yourself throughout the years. However, reading “A Terrible Thing to Waste” felt like a different call to action. Years of environmental injustices have had an insidious impact on our community for generations. The solution will need to be just as systemic. We should be talking about this and organizing around it.

So Where Do We Start?