by Kratika Tandon

Warren County, North Carolina: a small, rural, and predominantly Black community. For much of the past century, the county has been known just as that. The area was peaceful and largely unnoticed. Unfortunately, that all changed in 1982 when the region was chosen as the illegal dumping ground of 31,000 gallons of transformer oil—a cancer-causing waste. This poor minority community was being targeted by industries that threatened the environment, leading to higher rates of illness.

According to an article from The Guardian’s environmental column, dated March 8th, 2019, despite local advocacy at the time, city governments were not able to decontaminate the area until 22 years after the initial incident. Ensuing protests marked the start of what we now know as environmental racism: the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on marginalized communities. From undrinkable water to unbreathable air, this issue threatens the lives of millions of Americans each year. We need to spread awareness about this issue before our own communities begin to wilt. After all, Mother Nature herself is not racist… at least, not without human intervention.

We see the impacts of environmental racism throughout the history of the United States. In the year 1916, Shell Oil Company began opening refineries along the banks of the Mississippi River. They bought the property from the wealthy white homeowners, but the Black population could not afford to relocate. Soon, toxic pollution began seeping out of the plants and cancer rates started to spike. Multiple articles were published that highlighted the severity of the problem, but these revelations were met with little to no action. Residents asked one main question: “If we were rich and white, would things have been different?”

Today, the city of Reserve, Louisiana, has the most toxic air in the nation. An article from The Guardian dated May 6th, 2019, notes that nearly every household in this community had experienced a cancer-related death in the past 30 years. An 80-mile stretch of land that goes from Baton Rouge to New Orleans is now known as “Cancer Alley.”

Environmental injustice such as these bolsters systemic racism, which reinforces a social formation that produces racial inequality. It concerns the placement of marginalized communities in hazardous areas, racial discrimination in policy making, and the unequal enforcement of laws and regulations. As a result of this foundation of institutional racism, these communities get stuck in hazardous situations simply because they do not have the resources to fight back. And as the 2018 Fourth National Climate Assessment explains, the impacts of climate change across regions will not be distributed equally. Those who are already vulnerable, including lower income and other marginalized communities, will face greater impacts.

The causes of this incredibly broad problem are hard to conceptualize, but in short, this issue stems from vague policies and the exploitation of vulnerable communities. In my next article, I will explore the policies that impact environmental racism, and the actions that we need to take in order to tackle the problem.

About Kratika Tandon

Kratika Tandon is an incoming freshman at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is majoring in biology and graduating with a minor in environmental economics and policy. She graduated from Dunlap High School as class valedictorian. Tandon is incredibly passionate about sustainability. As such, she is interested in many different career paths that involve helping the environment. She is most interested in writing about the subjects of environmental issues, social justice, life during a pandemic, and racial equity. She is proficient in informative and expository writing as well as public speaking. Tandon was a part of her high school’s speech team for four years. This past season, she competed in two events at the state championship tournament: original oratory and informative speaking. She wrote and perfected these speeches on her own, both tackling specific topics dealing with the environment. Tandon was also the president of her school’s local Interact Club. She possesses great leadership, communication, and teamwork skills. She is participating with Giving Voice because she wants to use her voice and writing to inspire others and facilitate change.

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