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June 2020 | Environmental Racism & Why It Matters

Environmental racism: what is it and what can you do?

In this post, we read, listen, act, and reflect on June's topic: environmental racism. This article has been adapted from our sustainability newsletter, so please sign up for it to stay in the loop.

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

What’s covered:

  • READ - facts about environmental racism
  • LISTEN - two videos on the unfair distribution of environmental resources and damages
  • ACT - ways to create environmental justice
  • REFLECT - Cancer Alley: further reflections

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READ: Let's cut to the chase: are people making Earth racist?


Kinda.


Environmental racism is the (highly substantiated) idea that environmental risks are allocated disproportionately along the lines of race, often without the input of the affected communities of color.


I struggled with this concept at first. I didn't really get how something as neutral and inanimate as the environment could have a racism component. Here are some examples and facts that helped me:

  • When corporations pollute, they often dump their waste in impoverished communities. To this day, big oil companies pollute poor communities in Louisiana - they've literally created a place called Cancer Alley.
  • Fracking technology has improved greatly over the last decade, which is extra-bad news for communities of color. Oil and gas disposal wells are 2x more likely to be placed in areas with high minority concentrations. Fracking has serious implications for groundwater contamination, air quality, and health, and has outsized effects on minority communities.
  • More highly segregated areas suffer higher levels of exposure to particulate matter, which contributes to to several lung conditions, heart attacks, and possible premature death. It's serious, especially for communities of color.
  • A 2018 EPA report - under the current administration - found that race has a stronger effect on exposure to pollutants than poverty. Let that sink in.
  • To top it off: strong racial disparities are suspected in the prevalence of lead poisoning.

Articles I referenced above

If you're going to pick one, I recommend the last one.

  1. The Guardian on Environmental Racism and Climate Change (Read more about Cancer Alley here)
  2. Grist.org on Fracking Waste More Likely to be Located in Poor Communities and Neighborhoods of Color
  3. The Atlantic on Trump Administration's EPA Confirming Environmental Racism

LISTEN: Two videos on environmental racism

I'm going to give you a choice today based on what you need: #1) lighthearted commentary about a specific issue or #2) a broad visualization of environmental justice. I'm giving you bonus resources for both!

Each option will take you only ~5 min, so make sure you click one!

Option 1: Trevor Noah on The Dakota Access Pipeline


The video's only about 4 minutes long, so I won't share too much.


What you do have to know is so many major crises, like this pipeline protest, Flint water poisoning, and even something as natural as Hurricane Katrina have deep roots in environmental justice.


Trevor Noah gives his funny take on it, and if that's what you need right now, watch the video!


* Woke laughter *


When you're feeling up to it, you can watch Trouble the Water for free. It's a documentary of failures of the government to respond properly to the Hurricane Katrina — failures influenced by environmental racism. Thanks for the rec, Olivia! I'm looking forward to watching it.


Option 2: My favorite video explaining environmental justice


I love this video by Grist. It's only 3 minutes long, the visualizations are great, and it distills a complicated concept into understandable terms. Here's the description, straight from Grist:


The harm that comes with rising seas and contaminated water systems isn’t evenly distributed. To the contrary: Those who are already disadvantaged by race, wealth, and income are usually the most affected by environmental disasters. Without recognizing that inequality, we’re not always solving the problems with our water, air, and soil in ways that serve the people who need it most — which is why environmental justice is a critical part of planning a green future that’s good for everyone.

Watch it here!


You'll see in the video there's a reference to race-based zoning and housing. In the US, this is commonly known as redlining. According to writer Michael Harriot, "almost every calculable form of economic inequality that still exists can be tied to redlining." You've got to check out his Twitter thread on redlining. It changed the way I see American society.

ACT: Create systemic change

Today's ACT module is going to focus almost exclusively on questions you've sent in about how to create environmental justice within your communities, and create systemic change.


We're going to cover 3 things:

  • The impact of your bank
  • The effect of going local
  • Where to donate

Each comes with an easy peasy action, so reply to this email and tell me what you're going to do with this knowledge!

The #BankBlack challenge and sustainable activism


Here's the thing about humans:

  1. We rarely think about where our money goes when we're not using it. Most Americans don't even know the basics of banking. (Myself included... AND I have an economics degree.)
  2. We don't care about local elections even though these have the largest direct impact on our communities.
  3. We love trends. We donate based off those trends - but recurring donations are 440% more valuable.


The good news: everything I said above can be solved in baby steps, starting with what I'm about to tell you below. Here's what you can do.


1) Move money to a different bank


Sophia Wagner, one of our readers, is the founder of Mighty, a bank comparison site to help you find banks that are good for people & the planet according to public data, not ads. She reached out to me saying, "Many of the biggest contributors to fossil fuels and exploitation are the most popular banks in the country. Opening savings/checking accounts with sustainable banks or Black-owned banks can be a really effective way to take action and contribute to systemic change."


I've spent more time on the Mighty website than I'd like to admit. Here are some amazing things about it:

  • You can see what % of money your bank uses to support the community (spoiler alert: Chase only invests a quarter of its money - YOUR money - in communities)
  • You can find banks relevant to your location
  • You can choose issues you're interested in!

I wish this was a sponsored ad, but no — I'm just obsessed with how easy Sophia's making it to shift power from corporations to communities. If you're not ready to switch banks today, just start with something as simple as opening an account!

2) Understand and VOTE on local policy

One of our readers asked "how to participate in environmental reform in your city."

It really comes down to understanding what the heck is going on in your city in the first place. I live in San Francisco, and I finally started understanding how important local politics were when I dialed into weekly Chamber of Commerce meetings. I got to weigh in on things like marijuana legislation and safe injection sites.

Here's a general approach:

  • Follow your city leaders. I follow our mayor + all SF's supervisors on Twitter, where they share when they're meeting and making decisions.
  • Participate in whichever department or committee is in charge of environmental policy. Get on their mailing list.
  • Keep up with updates from your local news publication!


If you're looking for a tool that shows you what bills might be coming up for a vote, check out ProPublica's database of environmental protection bills and this search tool by GovTrack. I'd bookmark them so you can come back to them in November.


3) Donate! (Make it recurring!)

Finally, a few of you asked about where to donate. I'm plugging The Human Utility. Your donation will literally be helping people get access to water in cities like Detroit and Baltimore. It's a real shame that people in the US are going without WATER, but you can chip in as little as $5 a month to help them with their water bill. This is what direct impact looks like.

Reflect: Cancer Alley

When corporations pollute, they often dump their waste in impoverished communities. To this day, big oil companies pollute poor communities in Louisiana - they've literally created a place called Cancer Alley.

Residents Fight Back as 'Cancer Alley' Is Getting Even More Toxic ...
(Photo Credit: Rolling Stone; Alt: A march for environmental justice in Cancer Alley)



Of course, these communities are not only impoverished - they're racially segregated. We learned in our LISTEN module about redlining and housing discrimination, and how that plays a huge part in environmental racism.


In our ACT module, we talked about 3 ways to combat environmental racism with your wallet and your vote. Today, in our REFLECT piece, we'll bring it full circle to Cancer Alley to remind all of us how important it is to keep taking action.

Your Task for Today


I want you to reflect on this article NBC put out: "In 'Cancer Alley,' a renewed focus on systemic racism is too late." That's it!


You can go ahead and close this email if you're reading the NBC article... or scroll to the bottom for some bonus links. Bye!


If you're not ready to read the right now, here's the lowdown.

  • Cancer Alley has gone from plantations to petrochemicals. Reserve, Louisiana, one of the places in Cancer Alley, used to be home to a sugar refinery when the land was comprised of plantations. Now, it's home to the densest concentration of petrochemical plants in the country. It's also now a predominantly Black community.
  • It's not just about income. It's about race. Black Americans are twice as likely to be exposed to air pollution and more likely to be exposed to the most toxic pollution. Even African Americans with higher incomes are exposed to more toxic air than white Americans with lower incomes.
  • Cancer Alley's got hella COVID, and it disproportionately affects its majority-Black population. The parish where Reserve is located has recorded one of the highest death rates from COVID-19 in the entire state, and at one point the whole country. Black Americans are dying from COVID-19 at more than double the rate of white, Latino and Asian Americans. If Black Americans were dying at the same rate as white Americans, at least 14,400 people would still be alive, the research calculated.
  • This is how injustices compound. Air pollution and COVID-19 are clearly linked. According to Harvard researchers, long-term exposure to air pollution increases vulnerability to experiencing the most severe COVID-19 outcomes.
  • The government's response worsens the environment people of color live in.
    "Earlier this month, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that would allow major construction projects such as fossil fuel infrastructure and highways — projects that disproportionately impact communities of color — to bypass environmental protections."


If we're interested in combating climate change - which, if you've subscribed to this newsletter, you are - we can make the most change by tackling the most affected areas. In the US, that's often communities of color. Remember, in our ACT module, we talked about three simple things we can do:

  1. Switch your bank using Mighty Deposits so your money does the work for you
  2. Understand and vote on local policy by using tools like ProPublica's
  3. Donate on a recurring basis to nonprofits like The Human Utility


Finally, you can read this reflection by a Black queer environmentalist.

Fight climate change in a way that works for you.

💌 Thinking about sustainability can be overwhelming after a busy workday, so we're here to help. Join over 4,000 other busy people and subscribe to Changeletter, a bite-sized action plan that'll take you 3 minutes or less to read every week.
Take action
Headshot of Ash Borkar (a woman with glasses and a cardigan)
"The info is always timely, actionable, and never stale." - Aishwarya Borkar, Change.org
Headshot of Meghan Mehta speaking at Google with a microphone in her hand
"Making social change always felt so overwhelming until I started reading this newsletter." - Meghan Mehta, Google