Environmental Justice is Racial Justice

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By: Anabelle Farnham, Communications Intern
Just over one week ago, on May 25th, activists gathered to mark the anniversary of George Floyd’s death, which was the spark for powerful anti-racist protests and calls to action across the country in 2020. The same day this year was marked by gatherings, marches, and celebrations of life to honor him and the fight for Racial Equality that his death has come to symbolize.
As an intern with the Center for Health, Environment and Justice (CHEJ), Racial Justice and Equality are some things that I am challenged to think about every day, as it is inherently intertwined with the work we do for Environmental Justice and Equality. It is no secret that communities affected by pollution have greater health risks from their environment and are disproportionately constituted by lower-wealth and minority individuals. Studies estimate that on average, communities who live within 1 km (1 miles equals approximately 1.60934 km) of toxic waste facilities in the United States are majority people of color, with 20% being African-American. In contrast, communities living further than 5km away from toxic waste facilities are estimated to be only 8% African-American. In 2007, it was estimated that 1.8 million African-Americans lived in a neighborhood near one or more of the over 400 identified commercial hazardous waste facilities in the United States.
Not only are the current statistics of who is at risk from their environment skewed, but the history of Superfund clean-ups comes with its own biases, as well. As of 2021, the EPA has been working on Superfund clean-ups for over 40 years, and in the first decades of this work, particularly the 1980s, the sites with greater media coverage and urgency to clean up were often in communities with highly educated populations. This left many sites in majority African-American, low wealth, and urban neighborhoods ignored and without the attention or funding needed to clean up their toxic pollution environments. Since the first decades of Superfund, this disproportionate treatment has subsided, or ceased all together.  However, the issues for people of color and low wealth individuals living near toxic contamination remains potent and has not changed.
Racial Justice and Equality, in the context of Superfund, doesn’t stop when the sites have been cleaned up. It is still imperative that as these neighborhoods become livable they continue to be homes to those communities who have fought for their clean-ups in the first place. This means continuing to maintain affordable housing and taking additional measures that prevent gentrification, so that communities are not pushed from one environmentally damaged site to yet another environmentally damaged site. This is why the work that CHEJ is committed to remains important. Our work empowers local communities to have a voice at every step in the process, which is key in not only cleaning up Superfund sites, but other contaminated sites throughout the country.
As CHEJ celebrates 40 years of fighting for Environmental Justice and Equality, it is a poignant opportunity to reflect on what this justice encompasses. Not only is our focus on achieving a clean environment and eliminating threats to our health, it is also inextricably tied to Racial Justice and Equality for those disproportionately bearing the burden of pollution and toxic exposure in this country.  For more information on the intersections between how communities are affected by these injustices, and how to fight to win, please visit chej.org/organizing-and-leadership/.
Photo Credit: Gabriele Holtermann

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