Racism, and Care of the Environment 

At a recent workshop near Boston, Massachusetts, USA, Jennifer Wexler1 led a class on racism and care of the environment. She invited seven people of the global majority to speak about how racism had affected their relationship to the environment and how the degradation of the environment had affected their people. Here’s what they had to say:

• In Boston, a laboratory to study weaponized viruses is being built in a working-class community of people targeted by racism. A community college in that neighborhood has been pressured to develop a program to teach students to do the cleanup if a disaster happens, not to do the research. The college has not developed the program and so has been targeted for not wanting to create jobs. Camden, New Jersey (USA), which is poor, has a lot of cancer. I know it’s environmental. It’s hard to care for the environment when you are fighting for your survival. Wealthy people, often white, control property in commercial areas, including in poor neighborhoods. As a result, fresh food is not available. There are many liquor stores and a lot of packaged fast food.

• Both my parents worked in the cotton mills—my father for forty years. He died of asthma, brown lung,2 and emphysema. He had the worst case of asthma the doctor had ever seen. He died of an asthma attack in the waiting room of the emergency room. At some point the mill owners shut down the mill and moved down South.3 There was nothing for the workers, including no pension. 

• In Texas (USA), on the Mexican border, in the areas with a Mexican majority, there is no electricity or running water in colonias,4and little (if any) recycling service. The Rio Grande River between Texas and Mexico is unnaturally green and foamy, and people swim across it to cross the border. There are high rates of anencephaly, a birth defect that affects the brain, in the border towns. And it’s not the people’s fault. It’s not an accident either. 

• I’m an urban farmer in a community targeted by racism. At the farm stand there are crack pipes and liquor bottles. I would like to live in the country, but I would need to move to the South, because there are no black people in rural areas in the northeast (USA). Black kids don’t want to be farmers or be in the woods, because of the legacy of slavery. 

• On the northern border between Pakistan and India, armies are fighting on glaciers. Soldiers die because they can’t survive the conditions. The wars also destroy the environment. Large pieces of glaciers break off, which leads to thousands of people dying all at once. Every border between these two countries has land mines. When there is fighting, the rivers have bodies in them. Children are born without ears. We don’t know what the drones5 are dropping. Is it chemical? Is it biological? We’ll know in ten to twenty years. 

• The pastry industry in France was built on the blood of slaves on the plantations in Haiti, which was a colony of France. In one period, forty percent of France’s income came from Haiti. The money the United States received from France in the Louisiana Purchase helped to finance the slave trade, and war. In Vietnam, motorbikes are fueled by oil, which causes air pollution. People plant sticky rice to mitigate the pollution, but it’s backbreaking work. 

• There are things that I and my community know. White folks in labs figure out the same things, at huge costs and with much fanfare for white people. The face of environmental activism is very white, middle class, and intellectual. People in communities targeted by racism have been working against environmental degradation for decades but are not the face of activism, progress, and forward thinking. I’m not impressed by “white people in trees.”6 In my community there are no trees to climb, much less live in. I’m suspicious of “Fair Trade.”7 Starbucks8 is not Fair Trade. It’s not a new way of doing business if the same white men are being enriched. We’ve been talking about this forever. You white folks think you were here first and think you had the good ideas. You believe that. We know it’s not true. It would be useful if you knew that, too. 

Reported by Elizabeth Saunders,
Karen Young, and Anne Greenwald 
Boston, Massachusetts, USA
Reprinted from the RC e-mail
discussion list for leaders in
the care of the environment 

1 Jennifer Wexler is the Regional Reference Person for Boston, Massachusetts, and southeast Massachusetts, USA. 
2 “Brown lung” is a lung disease caused by exposure to cotton dust in inadequately ventilated work environments.
3 The South is the southeastern part of the United States. 
4 Colonias are neighborhoods of low-income, poor, or working-class people, mostly in Texas along the Mexican border, that often have substandard living conditions.
5 A drone is a remotely controlled military aircraft.
6 “White people in trees” refers to protests in which (usually white) people live for a while in trees, to protect the trees from being cut down.
7 “Fair Trade” is a social movement that advocates for higher prices on exports going from developing countries to developed countries and for higher social and environmental standards. 
8 Starbucks is a U.S.-based global coffee company that offers “Fair Trade” coffee as one of its products.


Last modified: 2017-05-06 23:35:41-07