Environmental Racism at Work: Building Schools on Brownfields

Activists and advocates concerned with race and environmental justice issues have developed the term “environmental racism” to describe the specific and pernicious social phenomenon of placing communities of colour in danger from pollution. Studies illustrate a strong colocational relationship between low-income communities of colour and polluting industries, developments on polluted land, dumps, and other facilities that present significant environmental and human health hazards. This phenomenon is one piece of the larger puzzle that surrounds poorer overall health outcomes for low-income people of colour in the United States, who experience much higher risks of environmental illnesses than the white community.

When confronted with the concept of environmental racism, conservatives are often highly resistant. They argue that these things are mere coincidence, despite the graphic representations overlaying Census data onto maps of pollution, brownfields, Superfund sites, and other areas of extensive pollution. Whether they’re reading coverage about Kettleman City or asthma clusters in Oakland, they staunchly refuse to make the very obvious connection here: something is making low-income communities of colour very sick, and environmental factors are a major cause.

In New Orleans last year, a particularly striking case of environmental racism hit the news, highlighting the fact that racial disparities run deep in the United States, and that many people are still reluctant to confront them, let alone do something about it. The story surrounds a proposal to redevelop a school located on a brownfield and relocate Black students from another community school to the site in order to close their school.

It illustrates not just significant problems with the education system in the United States, but the specifically racialised nature of many of these problems.

The situation began with Hurricane Katrina, which caused substantial uproar in the New Orleans education system thanks to closed schools, relocated residents, and other structural problems. One of the first schools to struggle to its feet after the storm was Walter Cohen High, which has faltered ever since, struggling to maintain its physical plant, retain staff, and remain functional. The school has been labeled as among the most dangerous in the US due to decaying facilities, and thus, officials suggested closing it.

School closures have become a hallmark of the austerity gripping the entire US, and they are devastating for students, parents, and staff alike. As schools close, students lose cohesiveness, and they’re often forced into crowded facilities that aren’t ready to handle them. That leads to a decline in educational quality and lower outcomes for students who might have done better in their original neighbourhood schools, which is one reason why closures have been hotly protested.

District officials suggested that the Cohen High students could be relocated to Booker T. Washington High, but there was a problem: the school had been closed since 2004 and was in a radical state of disrepair. It would need to be fully repaired and redeveloped in order to reopen to students, and it was hiding a dark secret. Built on the remains of the Silver City Dump, the school’s grounds were filled with toxic metals like cadmium and lead, according to an environmental report, and it would need substantial remediation in order to be safe for development and student use.

Some critics argued that the school would never be safe for young adults, noting that the city had done this once before, in 1985 with Robert Morton Elementary. The school was built on top of a dump site, and when students began attending, they developed environmental illnesses so severe that the city was forced to close the school, because it was not possible to clean up the site and make it safe for youth. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Robert Morton was also located in a low-income neighbourhood and it catered to Black students.

Opponents to the Booker T. Washington relocation plan argued that it wasn’t safe for any students, period, and that the city should focus instead on rehabilitating Cohen High. The city, however, proved resistant in discussions, and one advocate made the extremely sharp point that New Orleans would never consider sending white children to a school built on a former toxic waste site. While officials hotly insist that it’s possible to fully clean up the site and residents have nothing to worry about, there are still some legitimate questions about whether it’s truly possible to make it safe for use as a school—and even if it could be made totally safe to the most stringent standards, it is indeed unlikely that New Orleans would close a white school and send its children to the new Booker T. Washington.

Not just because of the outcry from enraged parents who wouldn’t put much stock in assertions that the school would be safe, but because the city views Black and white residents differently. It values some communities more than others, as evidenced by the long legacy in New Orleans (as in other cities) of allowing pollution to fester unaddressed in Black communities. Such neighbourhoods are only likely to be targeted for cleanup in the event of gentrification, because their residents don’t carry the clout, or the social status, of white communities in the city.

New Orleans is still recovering from the horrific level of damage dealt out by the hurricane, and it’s notable that some of the communities still struggling with damage are located in low-income areas. Furthermore, potentially contaminated refuse from the hurricane is accumulating in low-income communities, not just in New Orleans but in points surrounding, as it is traditional to dump toxic waste in low-income rural communities of colour which lack the ability to refuse it.

To those who say that environmental racism doesn’t exist, I say: why don’t wealthy white children live on top of dumps filled with toxic metals? Why aren’t polluting factories set up in wealthy white neighbourhoods? Why don’t wealthy rural enclaves open to accept dumps of contaminated materials from storms, oil spills, and other disasters?