Opinion: The scourge of environmental racism

By Yamilet Velez
Los Angeles, CA

In the low-income neighborhoods that surround the worst factories in the United States, smoke fills workers’ lungs, clogs the environment, and paints the skies grey. As dystopian as that sounds, harsh factory conditions are a reality in many communities of color.

My own parents moved into East Los Angeles, near the Tesoro Oil Refinery, not because it had the cleanest air, but simply because they couldn’t afford homes in the “rich areas” of Los Angeles, California. That was their only option, and unbeknownst to them, it was a dangerous one.

Communities of color, which are often home to many people from low-income backgrounds, become homes to these facilities too often. This disparity is known as environmental racism, a condition in which “pollution and the risk of disaster are assigned to black and brown communities through generations of discrimination and political neglect,” writes Vann R. Newkirk II of The Atlantic.

This is a life-threatening issue that the government and media seem to be ignoring. Many individuals, including myself, go on with our daily routines, oblivious to the hazardous waste disposal sites or air pollution in our communities. I didn’t even know about environmental racism until I attended a protest to prevent the expansion of the Tesoro refinery in Wilmington, California. The company planned to combine the Wilmington and Carson oil operations, which SoCal 350 Climate Action activists predicted would form the largest petroleum refinery on the West Coast.

This would mean an even greater number of pollutants would be disseminated in my lower-income community. According to a Government Accountability Office study, three-quarters of the hazardous waste landfill sites in eight southeastern states are located in poor, African American and Latino communities. Dirty industrial plants or truck depots are also a common sight in low-income neighborhoods.

In Warren County, North Carolina, the state government’s efforts to push a toxic landfill onto a small African American community is an example of racism in the same way as discrimination in housing, education and employment. The targeting of poor communities as a dumping ground for waste is institutionally racist, but not many of us are even aware it’s happening.

I’ve grown to love my community and the people in it, and I don’t want them to be in the dark. It’s crucial for communities that are victims of institutional racism to have access to information about the pollutants in the air.

We can not combat environmental racism unless we are aware that our communities are victims of it. We must join the environmental justice movement and prove that regardless of our ethnic or income backgrounds, we deserve a clean and healthy environment.

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