Environmental Classism and Racism

Race and class are very much tied up with environmental issues in the United States, particularly when these two things appear together. Low income communities of colour are much more likely to have pollution and other environmental problems thrust upon them, and are much more likely to have difficulty with environmental cleanup, trouble getting support for tougher environmental regulations. It is impossible to separate out environmental classism and environmental racism because of the strong interrelationships between these issues, but it is also important to bring a greater focus onto the way class issues intersect with race and environmental justice.

Low income communities are at a distinct advantage when companies come knocking, looking for a place to put a polluting factory, to dump waste, to engage in other environmentally unfriendly activities. These activities, citizens are assured, are necessary for the greater functioning of society; we need chemicals, we need a place to put toxic waste, and thus these things have to go somewhere. Companies seeking locations for these activities, however, tend to zero in on low income communities specifically, and there are several reasons for this.

One is that such communities may be desperate, especially during periods of economic turmoil. Low income communities have been hit particularly hard by the current recession. When a company arrives to promise jobs, some of which may come with benefits and other opportunities, it is very difficult to turn that company down and tell it to go somewhere else. It is also extremely hard to take a firm stance and accept the company, but put firm stipulations in place to limit its activities and make sure it behaves in a responsible way. If a community says, for example, that it will only allow a company to move in if it will allow union workers, the company can take its business elsewhere, and the community knows that. Likewise, if community members ask a company to commit to environmental responsibility, it can go somewhere else, to a less choosy location.

Even as members of the community may recognise the concerns with a company’s projected and planned activities, they may need the money more than anything else. City planners and concerned citizens who resist, say, oil spill garbage may be steamrollered by other people who are eager for jobs, for a company spending money in the local economy, for a chance at economic recovery. These people are not clueless or greedy, they are desperate, and they see this as, potentially, a way for a community to become more autonomous, even though they are well aware of the risks. They recognise the Faustian bargain in front of them and they take it anyway, because the alternative is to do nothing.

Money is a driving force in communities that may have trouble paying for infrastructure, educating children, and meeting other basic community needs. It should come as no surprise to learn that rural communities are an especially common target for polluting industries, if they are close enough to an urban area to make transit costs acceptable. A rural community with nearby train service, a superhighway, a canal, is ripe for the plucking when it has difficulty providing services to its citizens. A corporation comes around with a basket of plums, and who wouldn’t take one, under those circumstances?

Low income communities are also less likely to have the financial clout to challenge polluting activities within their borders. If a company violates the law, the community could have difficulty getting government agencies to take action. People who get sick in a poor community may have few to no options for legal remedies. It is expensive to sue a company for damages even when what is happening to you is clearly their fault. You may have to luck into a legal aid organization that will provide assistance, because you cannot afford it on your own. Or you may get a bad deal from an attorney who senses low hanging fruit and negotiates a settlement that ends up mostly back in her bank account, not yours.

When pollution damages crops, causes problems with farm animals, degrades air quality, there may be little that a low income community can do. Low income people lack the social status to push the company out and demand it to clean up. And their communities lack the attractions that draw media outlets to other scenes of pollution. One small, sick community is usually not of interest, especially in an era when investigative journalism is on the decline and news is increasingly centralised. Without journalists to publicise events and shame polluting corporations, communities may have little to no chance for environmental justice.

These communities, simply put, don’t matter. And people are well aware of this when they seek locations for unwanted waste, for polluting industries, for the other myriad sordid things that our society runs on. When environmental cleanup happens in one place, contaminated soil is removed to backfill with clean, that dirty soil goes somewhere. That somewhere is probably a poor community. When an oil spill happens, when a chemical spill occurs, when a nuclear power plant needs a place for spent fuel rods, the first place people look is a poor community, one willing to take the filth for the money, one unable to fight it, one without any chance of pursuing legal action after it is slowly poisoned.

The fact that many low income communities consist predominantly of people with colour is not coincidental: It is fundamental and key to this process, of shunting unwanted things onto minority communities. Being a person of colour is more likely to make you poor, and living in a predominantly minority community means that you are less likely to matter to regulators, news agencies, environmental organizations. The double whammy of racism and classism can be seen in small communities across the States, from Black communities in the South used as repositories for oil spill waste to primarily Latin@ communities in California with skyrocketing chromosomal abnormalities.