Environmental Racism: What It Is And Why It Matters

So you’re probably glaring at the computer screen and thinking, "how can I be racist against the environment," right? Do not worry, dear friends, hardly a week ago I too was pondering what race the earth is considered, as I prepped to attend the MLK Panel, “Toxic: A Conversation on Environmental Racism” hosted on our very own campus. I grievously report that not only is environmental racism real, and frightful, it’s hugely active in beloved Utah. 

The panel featured Tara Houska, of the Couchiching First Nation, a tribal rights attorney, the national campaigns director for Honor The Earth (Native-led organization that aims to raise awareness and financial support for Native environmental issues), and a key organizer and activist in the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Who stood alongside, Nayyirah Shariff, who is a cofounder of the Flint Democracy Defense League (a grassroots group created in 2011 to combat Flint’s emergency manager about the water crisis) and the executive director for Flint Rising, a coalition of Flint inhabitants as well as allies, and community groups. In their capable hands, my confusion and curiosity metamorphosed into a simmering anger, at yet another abuse inflicted on minority groups. 

Environmental racism at a basic level refers to minority groups being excessively exposed to pollutants, or being denied ecological benefits (such as clean water in Flint, Michigan), or both. No, it’s not racism against the environment, it is a lack of care about environmental protection, and needs in areas populated by minority races BECAUSE of racism. This is majorly in part to factories, highways, and other high polluters predominately being located in poor, non-white communities. And (of course) when health crisis arise in these areas politicians, and law-makers are more likely to give lists on how-to mitigate the problem rather than instate policies and efforts to improve the standard of living. 

Utah has an air problem. We see it. We breathe it. We are forced to live with it. However, some Utahans are forced to endure it more than others. Salt Lake City’s air pollution was found to be worse in the west-side, which is both poorer and more ethnically diverse. Caused predominately by the location of highway and industrial sites nearby, some areas have nearly twice the rate of pollution as the east-side--and there is little being done. Trees, great providers of clean air, continue to be planted in affluent areas. Public transportation, which can lessen the number of cars on the roads and thus pollution, continue to have better routes in wealthier areas. 

The effects are apparent. Complications due to lack of clean air range from asthma, to problems of brain development in fetuses, and these issues are being disproportionately administered to those with the least access to healthcare. Most on the west-side are unaware of how bad the air they breathe actually is, because the air quality is measured on the east-side of the city. Exercise becomes difficult. Children are unable to play outdoors (a healthy means of exercise for kids). Adults cannot jog or walk outdoors, and may not be able to afford an indoor gym membership. Suggestions were made to exercise in early hours, however in lower income neighborhoods street lamps are often scarcer, making this activity unsafe. The inability to exercise leads to further health complications for inhabitants. 

We as Utahans need to stand with our fellow citizens, and demand that no group be left vulnerable to our air-quality crisis. Be proactive, get in contact with your representatives to express your concerns, and petition that this health crisis be addressed. (If we’ve declared porn a health crisis, surely having some of the worst air-quality in the nation should count.) And find ways to mitigate your own pollutant productions.

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