|Environmental Injustices and Vulnerable Populations
According to Checker (2005), there are certain parts of the population of the United States that live in areas that are not clean enough to support human life both physically and socially. This idea seems to hold some validity; people of a minority status may be subjected to areas that are not as environmentally sound as other areas in the United states where it is common to find people who are not of a minority status living. This problem generally has many reasons and factors that help contribute to it. Over the years, the government has tried to play its proper role in maintaining proper upkeep of the environment, both physically and socially however, this does not always work as planned. Agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency is an important agency that has the job of keeping the environment clean and enforcing rules against the pollution of the environment. It is their inherent duty to protect the environment so that people today and in the future will have a clean and safe place to live and work. However, it has been found that because of the lack of work the EPA does at actually helping to keep the environment clean actually do not do their job depending upon the racial status of the community (Lynch 2004). In the end, the roles that the government should play in regulating residential development near highly-polluting industries and infrastructures that often lead to substandard living conditions for the least affluent people.
The topic of environmental injustice has been deeply researched. There are many terms and concepts that come into view when discussing the environment and problems that people may face. The first is environmental injustice. This is the unfair distribution of things, objects, beliefs, etc. In the case of this research paper, environmental injustice is the unfair or unequal distribution of environmental problems and/or environmentally hazardous facilities (Mohai 1995). Many people follow the idea that if you are going to pollute people, you should pollute equally or not at all. Another important idea is environmental racism, the intentional racial discrimination that occurs when environmental policies are being created or regulations and laws are applied (Checker 2005). This often occurs when companies are allowed to place hazardous facilities near communities of a certain racial group. This institutional racism, or the “structures, policies, practices, and norms resulting in differential access to the goods, services, and opportunities of society by ‘race’ ” (Jones 2002:10) can be defined as a type of structural violence, or practices that exist within a culture group that limit certain groups of people from access to goods and/or can limit the infrastructure (O’Neil 2009). A final important idea to contend with is called internal colonialism. This occurs when the ‘superior’ group, in this case the white communities and bureaucracies control and have the most say in what happens within the state. This is hegemonic at its deepest level. These dominant groups often will use the previous ideas, especially institutionalized racism to justify what they are doing (Bullard 1993).
There have been many scholarly articles that have been published that help to illustrate the idea or environmental injustice though the use of studies that have been conducted in the past. There are both articles that are for and against the idea. However, the articles the stick out the most and provide the best data are the articles that say there is a direct correlation to where hazardous facilities are and where the minority groups live. These case studies help to prove the idea of injustice, for example many communities are affected by hazardous materials due directly to their racial makeup. Communities include Houston where a mostly African American neighborhood was selected to be the site of a municipal landfill and Richmond, California where the bulk of its industrial factories are located in or near neighborhoods of African Americans (Bullard 1993). Other examples include a series of three landfills that were all sited to be built in locations where the minority population was higher than 95% (Collin 1993) and the community of Altgeld Gardens in Chicago which is encircled by municipal and hazardous waste sites (Bullard 1995). The examples provided as types of case studies help to show that the problem is really occurring today.
The definition of the environment and how it negatively affects people is also a common theme; many of the articles deal with the fact that the environment cannot be defined in just a few words. It is a rather complex network of ideas, objects, and status indicators such as wealth that work connectedly to influence people and to shape what people think and/or believe about a specific group of people. Another common theme is that of academia that deals with the environment and biases or prejudice placed upon people in the form of structural violence (Collins 1999). Some examples of structural violence can be seen in the form of loss of proper regulations or fines for breaking the laws for the big companies who do break the law and the EPA in the end fails to do their job. It is very common for big companies to have their fines lessened (Lynch 2004) (Head 1995) to be able to ‘buy’ themselves out of the trouble. This is mainly because they have a higher status in the system that many of the minority groups of people who are the affected. Quicker clean up time is also a problem if the pollution is located in an area that is not mainly minority-based (Bullard 1995), and the clean up, if conducted, is not as well done, protective, or preventative as it would be if conducted in a white community (Head 1995). In all, big companies are given ‘breaks’ by the national government. The reasoning can be inferred because the populations that are being affected are those that are not of much importance to political leaders/government officials.
LACK OF RULES AND REGULATIONS
Based on the research conducted thus far, it is safe to say that there definitely something that is not fair going on in the government of the United States, right in our own backyards. People are being exposed to toxic substances that in many cases are being completely ignored because of the racial status of the group that is being affected.
One of the primary factors for environmental injustice is control. As discussed before, the powerful dominant groups, often the elite white citizens are the people who have the most power over others and use strategies such as structural violence for mass control. This applies on a large scale when discussing siting facilities that are hazardous and/or toxic in nature. Naturally, people do not want to live next to one of these facilities and so the people who either live on the land or possibly own it have the most say which in nearly all cases the people are white. This racial group will ultimately dictate where the facility is built. People of minority groups generally have less agency, or ability to speak for themselves, than people who are of the dominant group. Due to this, they are forced to live in areas that are not fit for standard living. This is a form of structural violence because the government and those in control (the elite white people who often are the government) use the decreased agency of the minority group in order to keep them under control and living the land that is least desirable. By keeping the minority groups living in the least desirable areas, they are minimizing the possibility of an uprising of the minority groups and possible problems that could arise.
Another important issue is the job which the government is doing at protecting the citizens from environmental problems that are often produced by failures in facilities. However, sometimes these environmental problems are directly produced by the government. This occurs because there are many times in which the government will legally permit the release of some chemicals as well as some planned emissions under some federal laws (Head 1995). As of now, many believe that the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA has “done a poor job protecting people of color from the ravages of pollution and industrial encroachment” (Bullard 1993:17). There are many case examples where action could have been done much quicker than it was; the slow movement of the government agencies can be almost directly blamed on the racial makeup of the people affected.
Along with the idea of protecting the citizens is the fact that in many parts of the government, policy makers are practicing environmental injustice. For example, there are many cases in which even the city planners are practicing with racial terms and ideas in mind. According to Bobo (2000) there is no such thing as any type of policy making or city planning the in United States that is completely neutral to the ideas or beliefs that are imbedded in the race of people. Bobo (2000) then goes on to state that a “color line” is very prominent within planning and policy making and it is usually what many people conduct their work by. This planning and policy racism shows itself when many people of a minority group are hyper-segregated to urban areas, such as the ghettos. In many cases, this hyper-segregation is used as another form of structural violence. The government “places” people of a lower status or people of a minority group into small housing complex areas in order to keep them under control and to keep themselves safe from possible uprising of the people. Their lack of agency keeps them in low spirits and further exacerbates the lack of agency of the people. Along with this example, there are many cases in which the government purposefully will put some people in some areas of a city versus others, especially after a natural disaster. When Hurricane Katrina hit the United States, a lot of what could have been racism could be seen around the nation. After government organizations had gotten housing for the displaced, many were not allowed to return to their homes due to the state they were in but also for other reasons that the government does not talk about. However, in the FEMA trailer parks there were many gates and locks and people who had to live there were not allowed outside the gates after certain time and were limited to just a few bus trips a week to pick up groceries and supplies. This can be an example of racism that stemmed from the environmental conditions. Many believe that if the racial makeup of the affected group had been different, the response and action taken would have also been completely different.
The government also allows many to live in close proximity to dangerous facilities. The government seems to turn their heads when it comes to people in our society who are not as ‘important’ as others, this often includes people who are of a minority group. One may speculate that if a neighborhood of affluent white people was being affected by a hazardous facility or some type of a planned chemical emission, the government would take action nearly immediately to solve the problem. If the same situation had occurred, but the race of the group was changed then the government action as well as the time taken would have changed. The government also allows for money to pay for everything. We now know that money cannot pay for problems that occur in the environment due to negligence and pure apathy for others and the environment in which they must live. However, the government will often accept payments or lessened fees when the race of the group is considered (Lynch 2004).
A great case example that illustrates all the previous problems that have occurred in the system would be the community of Aragon Park in Augusta, Georgia. This community was the home for many freed slaves and sharecroppers in the past. They were given the land as a form of “payment”. The land belongs to the people, but sadly it was some of the worse land in the area. Now, many hazardous facilities have been built directly in the area or just outside. The toxic materials that were produced by these facilities have contaminated the soil leaving it infertile, as well as the water and air. Children are not allowed to play in the dirt, as it is toxic and people cannot get out of the community because they cannot sell their homes or land due to the contamination of it. One of their first attempts to prevent contamination of people was to place carpet over the dirt where children played in hopes that this would help stop or at least halt the problem. Eventually they began to place signs up all over the community that warned against playing in the dirt or even getting too close to the ditches because they were very contaminated. After many lawsuits and coming together of the community, problems were finally realized by the government. It has taken the US government many many years, as well as some lawsuits to realize the gravity of this community’s fate. Now, cleanup action has been completed on only a few parts of the community on so called ‘brownfield’. A brownfield is an area that once was either contaminated with toxic substances or is the location of a toxic facility from the past. There are also greenfields; those that have no contamination, and greyfields; those that need no clean up from contamination. Many are now rallying for the cleanup of the rest of the community. People outside are beginning to realize what the community of strong citizens has had to endure over the many past years that they have lived there.
This case study provides a great example of the problems that exist in many communities, especially those that are the home of a large number of people of a minority group. Due to the fact that the majority of the population is of a minority group, the community is subjected to unimaginable contamination which leads to many health problems, as well as economic problems in the future.
IMPLICATIONS FOR FUTURE RESEARCH
To extend and explore this topic more, much research would need to be done on many other minority group communities around the country. Historical backgrounds for affected communities would also need to be examined to look for possible reasons why these locations were chosen for minority groups in the very first place. A comparison between different minority groups would also be beneficial in order to access whether there are any differences between racial groups.
More examples of environmental injustice would always strengthen the argument, as there are very few known cases in which environmental justice is practiced for a minority community. A comparison of the remediation of a problem for a minority community and a dominant community would also prove important as it would allow for any patterns to become visible.
The governmental programs and agencies that are in charge of environmental problems also warrant further research. The things that have been done to protect people should really be looked at, as well as the things that the government has not done to protect people. The EPA does not discuss their shortcomings and they also do not discuss the laws and regulations in depth enough to really be applied to areas around the nation. It seems as if the EPA is more concerned with keeping a good face rather than actually doing work to help protect the people from man-made environmental problems.
In conclusion, as physical and social contamination continues, people will continue to question what is really going on behind the cooperate curtain. Social contamination occurs in the form of social relations, such as institutionalize racism itself. Physical contamination occurs in the forms that most people are familiar with, contamination of the earth. But whether the government is doing all that it is supposed to do, or anything at all is a question that is hard to answer and will require time and proper research, in the future. It takes time to see what is really happening, as well as a watchful eye and keen instincts. However, it only takes one small group to stand up to one large group to create a wildfire of change and positive social reform.
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