Let’s Talk About Flint and Environmental Racism

If you get your news the responsible way, that is, by following Cher on Twitter, then you’re well aware that a part of America right now is under siege from its tap water.

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All the news that’s fit to caps lock

I wish I could say this is old news, but unfortunately, while in terms of media attention it’s practically new news, not only does the start of this calamity date back much further, it’s also nowhere even close to over.

On the off chance you’re getting your news from me, a person whose sole source of nutrition for the day has been pretty much just an entire box of strawberry Fig Newmans, allow me to tell you the story. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder decided to essentially overthrow democracy in Flint by overturning the results of an election and installing his own people (America has literally invaded countries over less). These outsourced politicians, much like any consultants might, looked to how they might improve the bottom line above all else. They saw an opportunity to save if they went ahead and switched Flint’s water source from the relatively clean and safe Lake Huron to the contaminated Flint River. People alerted the government a year ago, when their children were getting sick and their water looked like pond scum, but no one did anything to help them, despite their protests. Then General Motors complained that the water was rusting their car parts, and Governor Snyder jumped through hoops and spent a considerable amount of money to get them hooked back up to the clean waters of Lake Huron. Meanwhile, the residents of Flint were coming down with Legionnaire’s Disease and irreversible lead poisoning.

There are a lot of ways to look at what’s been happening in Flint, and a lot has already been said. So I just want us to look at the crisis in Flint through a particular lens: that of a faction of the environmental movement called environmental justice. But first, a quick tour of the history of American environmentalism to see the context in which the environmental justice movement emerged.

Note: This will be a woefully simplified version of this history because you don’t want this to end up like my essay on the history of NYC public housing. Oh, you never saw that? That’s because it’s still an unfinished 4,000 word draft. Yeah. Let’s get started.


Environmentalism only came into being when people began to perceive the environment as under threat, or their own wellbeing as under threat from those changes. While people throughout the ancient world connected the effects of pollution on public health, the American environmental movement got its start only as the true ramifications of the industrial revolution were growing clearer. The broad history of modern American environmentalism thus comes in three main stages: a “hey bros, let’s go camping and shoot stuff” first stage, a “we are definitely all going to die soon” second one, and a “we can innovate our way out of this mess again and again until forever” third.

Stage 1: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man going camping must be in want of sufficient camping grounds  


[In aristocratic bellow] Let’s go camping, boooooyyys!

It can get pretty awkward when you try reading the words of the environmentalists of the 1800s stage, as for a group of people purportedly all about saving the wilderness (from themselves), they were awfully enthusiastic about shooting it up. Many considered Nature a pristine yet primitive and dangerous Eden that they needed to rush to carve out little bubbles in before their robber baron companies did the 19th century equivalent of put up a parking lot.

Theodore Roosevelt with Dead Rhino

Teddy Roosevelt, famed conservationist, with an animal he saved from um, living

Like the gender binary that defines female as what is “not male,” much of this understanding of nature was “that which is not human.” That humans had in fact lived on this continent, not necessarily “living lightly on the land,” as the myth of the ecological Indian would attest, was an inconvenience. Yet this was a nuisance easily remedied by population removal, whether though communicable disease, violence, or land grab. As America expanded, it pushed whomever it found on its new land out, into the seemingly infinite expanse of land that was the West. As the 19th century was coming to a close, however, so too was this stretch of wide open western frontier that, according to Gilded Age historian Frederick Jackson Turner, had kept up white America’s hopes, self-conception, growth, and ambition. (It was basically “there’s always money in the banana stand,” but in the 1800s and replace “money” with “land” and “banana stand” with “west.”) Aristocratic, Aryan conservationists applied the same Eugenics they used on people to other species and landscapes. Only pretty, noble animals and scenes like elk and mountains were worth saving; the little flora and fauna, like the little people, weren’t worth their time.


Technically, it’s going to some Native Americans’ home that you took

For the men who relished America’s “purple mountain majesties” (a brand new poem at the time) for all they offered in terms of both natural resources and self-identity, this was a crisis. People like Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir rushed to siphon up still-beautiful parts of the country to hide them in a bubble of protection, while removing the indigenous people who had lived on them before, and sometimes even the animals they didn’t like (there was a full-on wolf genocide in this country the population has yet to recover from). This is the charming legacy of our National Park system. In a 1901 promotional essay for the parks, Muir good-naturedly assured would-be white visitors that, when it came “to Indians, most of them are dead or civilized into useless innocence.” [Ed. note: calling dibs on “Useless Innocence” as a band name now]

Not everything was profit- or sentiment-driven, however. Some, such as Aldo Leopold, were advocating for biocentrism, which is the belief, contrary to what the Bible says, that humans are just one species among many and should act as such. Middle class lobbying groups would continue to push this agenda of conservation and anti-pollution through the next century.

Stage 2: The birds are dying; we’ll be next

The second famous wave of American environmentalism came in the middle of the 20th century, when Rachel Carson explored and explained the ruinous effects the pesticide DDT was having on species that were merely bystanders to the insects it was meant to corral. The earth was our very own handbasket, and our miles per hour rate to hell was as high as our trucks’ fuel efficiency wasn’t. Things got really Malthusean for a moment there, and we seriously considered whether about half of us had to die, though it wasn’t the white parts.


You guys, I went to India, and it is just so gross. Love, Paul

The government got involved, though, and we got the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Clean Water Act, and the end of hairspray. Still the movement stayed as white as a bleached coral reef. Polling its members in 1972, the Sierra Club found that forty percent of respondents were strongly opposed to the organization potentially “concern[ing] itself with the conservation problems of such special groups as the urban poor and ethnic minorities.” Only fifteen percent were in favor  (Obviously a group with any sizable number of minority members wouldn’t have phrased the question that way, or had to ask it). Some young, white activists who had cut their teeth protesting the Vietnam War were excited to get the underclasses involved, but their attempts to Lorax the urban poor were met with suspicion. The working class saw environmentalism as the elite trend it had long been, and feared its ability to create further oppression.

As the movement grew, leaving the poor and brown behind, it was maligned as anti-growth and thus, anti-jobs. While as the environmental non-profit industry proliferated, creating lots of jobs, those went to the liberal arts grads you’d expect. The jobs the poor were allotted were often in the very industries environmentalists fought against, such as coal mining and construction, and the immediate need of a job, even a dangerous and poorly paid one, trumped the eventual need for a non-lethal planet. Environmentalists got a bad rap as “anti-job,” a slanderous fire big business was more than happy to flame.

Stage 3: Buy green! Stop buying! But this Prius, tho

What came next was an optimistic, We Can Do It approach, which basically said, “if we had the ingenuity and inventiveness to get us into this mess, then gosh darn it, we have the smarts and pluck to invent our way out of it!” We didn’t have to stop building, we had to start building better. We got LEED buildings, hybrid cars, and a lot of TED talks on green cities. We’re all excited because sustainability is a fun design challenge.

This has led to the juxtaposition of anti-capitalist co-ops, “eco-friendly” packaged goods, and those tote bags that say “I am not a plastic bag.” We live in a weird mix of anti-consumption and conspicuously virtuous consumption.

im green

Methinks the tote bag doth protest too much

The absurdity is perhaps best embodied in the idea of carbon credits, which let governments or companies “buy” the right to emit a certain amount of pollution, or sell their rights on the free market. While many conservatives hate this idea as restricting industry’s ability to produce unfettered, many environmentalists hate it as well because it’s just in particularly bad taste to sell the rights to poisoning our only planet. So still pollution rages on, uncapped and untraded, as we all fight over what we can do, who can do it, and whether anything bad is happening at all.



The unequal burden of environmental destruction

Now, this is how the history of environmentalism is largely taught, but of course, it’s important to note here that just because this is who we, as a society and as historians, heard and noticed doing stuff, it doesn’t mean this is all that was happening. Rather, like in all of history, most people’s voices and actions either got stopped before they could occur or weren’t written down or spread for us to remember.

And just as their stories have been struck from the record, so have poor people, children, women, and ethnic minorities always been hit hardest by environmental degradation. This is both because they interact more closely with it, and because they are usually located right on the site of the worst abuses. These marginalized groups are the ones forced to extract its resources and depend on that labor for their livelihoods (through mining, agriculture, or drawing water, for example), live more closely intertwined in it (as they are less likely to own a car, live in a secluded and pristine habitat, or have the means to protect themselves from extreme weather events) and whose dwelling spaces the powerful invariably choose as the site of blights they don’t wish to live near, like landfills, fuel extraction operations, and freeways.

In addition, people from cultures other than the West’s have a host of different traditions dictating how to interact with the environment. Since they already know a different path, they cannot be convinced of the inevitability of capitalism and its treatment of nature, despite Margaret Thatcher and her ideological descendants’ famous declaration that “there is no alternative.”


Your father and I made capitalism for dinner, and you’ll eat it or go to bed hungry. That’s it; I don’t want to hear any more about hot dogs or democratic socialism

Environmental Justice is the fight against the deliberate and systematic oppression of disenfranchised groups through environmental tactics. These include discriminatory housing regulations; placement of landfills and toxic waste in communities of color; preventable environmental health problems such as asthma, lead poisoning, cancer, and developmental illnesses; farmworkers’ exposure to toxic pesticides; unsafe and unfit housing; mistreatment of sacred indigenous grounds; lack of representation in the environmental movement; poor access to healthcare; restricted community participation in decision-making; and unequal enforcement of environmental laws.

dumpingEnvironmental racism refers to the fact that people of color are the disproportionate victims of the above litany of abuses. As Robert Bullard defined it in his seminal 1990 work, Dumping in Dixie, “Black communities, because of their economic and political vulnerability, have been routinely targeted for the siting of noxious facilities, locally unwanted land uses, and environmental hazards… and are likely to suffer greater risks from these facilities than is the general population.”

To advocate for environmental justice is to fight a two-pronged battle, against not only environmental degradation’s disproportionate effects on the very people least responsible for it, but against the very act of environmental destruction itself.

The Environmental Justice movement


Dolores Huerta, American hero

The sentiments and tactics of the American environmental justice movement can be seen throughout the country’s history, coming to a head in the second half of the 20th century. From 1965-1970, Mexican and Filipino farmworkers organized against abusive working conditions in the agricultural fields of California. In 1967, black students in Houston protested a city dump that had killed two children. The next year, black residents of West Harlem fought a sewage treatment plant in their midsts. But the movement would be subsumed by the larger civil rights campaign until the 1980s, when environmental justice came into the spotlight thanks to a poor, black county in North Carolina that surprised everyone by fighting back when their health and community came under threat.

In 1982, the African American residents of Warren County, North Carolina found themselves selected as the dumping grounds for the state’s PCB toxic waste, which the state had previously been haphazardly dispersing across the state’s highways. The site selected for the landfill wasn’t geologically wise, as it had a shallow water table and was dangerously close to the source of residents’ drinking water. But new EPA regulations were rolling back restrictions on where landfills could and could not be built in order to facilitate building them in more politically expedient locations, and Warren County fit the bill. Poor, rural, and 84% black, it was expected to lie down and take whatever the government threw at it.

PCB protest

Center: Rev. Ben Chavis, who coined the term “environmental justice” based on his experience in Warren County. This photo was taken as he raised his fist in support of fellow protesters as they were taken to jail on Thursday, Sept. 16, 1982. (AP Photo/Greg Gibson)

It turned out that wasn’t to be the case this time. Warren County residents organized a formidable opposition, joined by national civil rights leaders, black politicians, churches, labor unions, activists, and students. In just two months, over 500 Warren County residents were arrested for participating in non-violent protests. Now, when students and activists get arrested in protest, that’s a great sacrifice. But when a group that has a history of suffering at the hands of the police, and for whom missing a day of work could be financially ruinous, gives up everything to exercise their right to free speech and assembly in the name of a cause? That’s awe-inspiring. That the people of Warren County deemed this level of dedication and personal suffering was worth it shows the gravity of what was– and still is– at stake when it comes to environmental racism.


Nonviolent protest tactics

Though the trucks still came with the toxic trash, the media had come as well, and with it, the nations’ attention. The Washington Post called Warren County’s activism the “marriage of environmental concerns with civil rights activism.” Dr. Benjamin Chavis, director of the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice, coined the term “environmental justice” to describe what they were fighting for. The Environmental Justice movement was born.


A coalition of protestors. I really don’t know why all these photos from 1982 are in black and white

While Warren County’s campaign is heralded  as the birth of the environmental justice movement, Hazel Johnson is known as its mother.

Johnson began fighting the discriminatory polluting practices of her Chicago hometown after her husband died of lung cancer in 1969. She documented the disproportionately high cancer rates among her public housing community, who lived in homes laden with asbestos and surrounded by over 250 leaking storage tanks and landfills. Her advocacy efforts led, among other things, to a 1994 Executive Order directing federal agencies to examine minority communities’ disproportionate environmental and public health ailments. In a fitting turn of events, the young black president who reaffirmed this pledge in 2014 had worked alongside Johnson as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago, thirty years before.

hazel and barack

Two audaciously hopeful South Side community activists

In 1991, black leaders organized the First People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, drawing up the principles that guide the Environmental Justice movement. Today, the environmentalism movement includes many activist groups founded by and for people of color, and lower class and minority communities increasingly banding together to try to protect their environments. The federal government has even worked in fits and starts to address environmental discrimination. But environmental justice isn’t an especially well-known cause, and it’s a fight that is far from over, even as it may sit on the sidelines of national awareness. What Flint did was to bust this ignorance open and shine, what for many white Americans was the first light they saw on the unique health effects of being black, poor, and living in the wrong place.


Dr. Bullard addressing the First People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit

Flint is far from alone. The small, 77% black community of St. Joseph, Louisiana has been suffering through chalky, murky water the color of caramel for a decade. One resident told Mic, “You can’t wear white clothes because if you wash your white clothes, the water turns them tan or beige. All of the toilets, sinks in town are stained brown.”

Lead poisoning is also more commonly transmitted through old housing stock, with its leaded paint, than through water. And dilapidated, unsafe housing is tragically common, especially among African Americans. As a result, Black children are five times as likely to suffer from lead poisoning than white children. Multiple towns in Pennsylvania have equivalent or higher levels of lead exposure to Flint, mostly from old leaded paint. A study by socio-environmentalists recently found evidence that “extreme emitters” are having an even larger effect on sacrifice zones than scholarship until this point has suspected.

Spacialized discrimination, with all the hazards that entails, has only gotten worse in the three decades since Warren County rose up against toxic waste. As Dr. Bullard explains, “African Americans and people of color are more concentrated near hazardous wastes facilities today than two decades ago. People of color now make up 56 percent of the residents living in neighborhoods within two miles of the nation’s commercial hazardous waste facilities; they comprise a whopping 69 percent in neighborhoods with clustered waste facilities… African Americans are 79 percent more likely than whites to live in neighborhoods where industrial pollution is suspected of posing the greatest health danger.”

And this is truly an issue of environmental racism, rather than just a byproduct of environmental classism. Black people making $50,000 – $60,000 a year are still more likely to live in a polluted area than white people making only $10,000. Meanwhile, despite supposed increased federal oversight, the EPA’s Office of Civil Rights has not declared a single instance of discrimination among any state or local agency in its twenty-two years of existence from the hundreds of claims and documented events submitted to it. The racial lines of suffering drawn by Hurricane Katrina drew a clear distinction in how vulnerable black people have been left not just to the daily effects of environmental degradation and abuse, nor to the immediate catastrophe of a sudden weather event, but also to a government and societal response that left us with the indelible and unimpeachable charge that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” As a group of scholars including Bullard wrote in the journal Race, Poverty & the Environment wrote,”environmental justice is about slow-motion disasters—and disasters reveal environmental injustice in a fast-forward mode.”

Flint has largely been reported on as a public health crisis, or a political scandal, but increasingly, people are calling it out as the instance of environmental racism that it is. Russell Simmons explicitly called the situation environmental racism in the Detroit Free Press, adding that, “If this were Beverly Hills, it would be a minute before we found out and a second before someone would be blamed and be brought up on charges.” Yale360 sought out Dr. Bullard for an interview on Flint’s plight, which he called “a textbook case of environmental injustice.” Autostraddle‘s “Notes from a Queer Engineer” column traced the roots of the disaster to a combination of road salt and environmental racism. And the New York Times asked, “If Flint were rich and mostly white, would Michigan’s state government have responded more quickly and aggressively to complaints about its lead-polluted water?” in an article entitled “A Question of Environmental Racism in Flint.”


I think we’ve all seen this by now, but it doesn’t get less unsettling

So why am I writing about all this here (besides the fact that it’s the only blog I’ve got)? Well, this is ultimately an issue of housing, as it is an issue of the lived, natural, and built environment. Your housing, or rather, your habitat, doesn’t stop at your front steps. It extends into your community, in floats in the air around you, it’s painted onto your walls, and it’s pumped into your pipes and streams from your faucets.

Housing justice is not just about affordability; it’s about the right and ability to be safe and healthy in one’s home. Environmentalism is not just about saving the rainforest and polar bears; it’s about making sure none of our own species are in danger of habitant destruction. Urban planning is not just about public transit and bumped out curbs; it’s about finding a place for the less pretty stuff besides where the people no one cares about live. The people of Flint were denied their human and environmental rights when the city switched their water to a toxic stream, and it was due to environmental racism. Here’s to a world where Environmental Justice wins.




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