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The reason why I chose to do a project on public health in Detroit and environmental racism is because I wanted to understand why the concept of environmental racism is even allowed to exist. I wanted to know how the government could stand by while innocents are getting sick and dying. I wanted to know if the government could really side with big cooperations, even if it meant harming people who have been living in the same neighborhood for years. I was debating about how personal I wanted to make this project and how open I wanted to be about my own thoughts and feelings. I quickly learned that I need to realize my own faults in if I ever want to be an ally for this community. Through this project I have started to understand my own privilege, and my role as an oppressor in this context. I feel so embarrassed to say that I lived in Michigan my whole life and did not know that this was occurring.
What I discovered in my journey of completing this project is that environmental racism has roots in historical racial discrimination, economical, and sociopolitical issues and is a more complex issue than I originally thought it was. Structural oppression plays a big role in each fragment of this issue, and structural oppression is a big reason why this issue is not easy to solve.
One of the things that bothered me about this issue was the “chicken vs. the egg” attitude that some people have about this issue (Mohai, 2009). I am sure you’ve been asked the question… “what came first, the chicken or the egg?”. Similarly, in this context, there is a debate about what happened first… were people of color already settled into neighborhoods before these big industries moved in? Or were these industries already up and running but their surrounding land value allowed people of color to move in? (Mohai, 2009). This argument oppresses those people of color who live in environmentally racist environments by implying that they brought their situation upon themselves. In most cases of environmental racism, neighborhoods composed primarily of people of color are settled first, and then these facilities come in and take their land and pollute their environment (Mohai, 2015b). By falsely accusing and blaming a population that is already suffering at the hands of these big industries, industry leaders and government officials are creating a wider gap between the rich and the poor, and are further oppressing the poor.
The problem of environmental racism runs deeper than just the “chicken vs. the egg” debate. These industries have a power that only attainable by taking advantage of the most vulnerable populations. This power is the reason that environmental racism still exists today. People of color who are living in environmentally poor conditions have been victims of structural oppression for as long as the structure has existed.
As Mullaly explains, capitalism is a structure that help preserve hierarchical social divisions (Mullaly, 138). Similarly, one of the reasons environmental racism continues to exist today is due to economics. Large polluting facilities seek land where prices are low… this happens to be in neighborhoods where poor people and colored people live (Mohai, 2015a). Once the pollution starts to get out of hand, those who can afford to move (mainly the rich people or white people) will move to a better and safer neighborhood. However, in the neighborhood where the polluting industry is, property values will decrease and will allow more and more people of color or more people who are economically disadvantaged, to move in (Mohai, 2015a). Sadly, even if a person of color had enough money to move out of the neighborhood, he or she may have had trouble finding a new home because of housing discrimination (Mohai, 2009). The industry will continue to make money, and may even buy more surrounding land for cheap, all while local residents suffer health effects. Mullaly explained that a country competes in the global market and is moving towards globalization, cannot support a modern welfare state (Mullaly, 140). Environmental racism is a result of globalization and capitalism. Industries care more about how much money they make and how they can compete within global markets more than they care about people they are affecting.
Another way that these big industries are further oppressing people and enforcing environmental racism on people is through sociopolitical means. Mullaly stressed that in a pluralistic political system, the people with an advantage will be those who have financial and political resources available to them (Mullaly, 147). These are the people who ultimately have power in government and influence laws and policies. Big industries seek the path of “least resistance” when looking for new locations for their plants because they already know that their facilities will cause resistance among local residents (Mohai, 2015a). They are taking advantage of the system by putting industries where opposition will not be effective because they know that disadvantaged residents will have minimal resources and barely any political influence (Mohai, 2015a). These communities will not have any government official stand up for them, and they will not be represented when laws and policies are made (Mohai, 2015a). By taking advantage of this sociopolitical system, big industries have all the power when it comes to influencing government.
One factor of structural oppression that really saddens me is how this form of oppression is a form of violence. Mullaly says that “… structural oppression in the form of such inequities as inadequate income, substandard or no housing, unemployment, and lack of health care leads to a slow, agonizing, unpunished, and premature death for countless numbers of subordinated people…” (Mullaly, 152). Although this form of violence does not have immediate effects, the end result of structural violence is still death. The end result of environmental racism is death. I’m surprised why this form of violence doesn’t spark outrage for people the same way a sudden violent act does. People who live in a hazardous environment are constantly under stress, and if they do not directly die from the effects of pollution, they may die from chronic stress. Inflicting stress on an innocent person is a form of violence (Mullaly, 153). I am baffled as to why someone’s slow death does not affect society as much as someone’s quick death. Industrial companies know that they are killing people. They know that they are harming the futures of innocent children. However, people are not standing up for these innocent people because their deaths are not sudden. This is another way victims of environmental racism are being oppressed.
So, how do we as social workers help people who are victims of environmental racism? Mullaly made a good point when he said that social inequality at the structural level is a major form of violence, and social workers should be aware that this form of extreme inequality can cause death in a person (Mullaly, 151). If we only help these groups cope with the problem or stay within the environment that is harming them, we are part of the social violence that is oppressing them in the first place (Mullaly, 127). The best way to help these people is by advocating for them. There need to be policies put in place that protects the lives of these people and their children. More people need to be aware that this is happening. Air and water, the only things that we as humans need to survive, should be kept clean and available for all. No industry or government should be allowed to take those away, no matter how much capital they will gain from it.
Mohai, P. (2015a). Which came first, people or pollution? A review of theory and evidence from longitudinal environmental justice studies. Environmental Research Letters. 10(12). doi:10.1088/1748-9326/10/12/125011
Mohai, P. (2015b). Which came first, people or pollution? Assessing the disparate siting and post-siting demographic change hypothesis of environmental injustice. Environmental Research Letters. 10(11). doi:10.1088/1748-9326/10/11/115008
Mohai, P. (2009). Environmental justice. Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 34 (1), 405-430. doi:10.1146/annurev-environ-082508-094348
Mullally, B. (2010) Challenging Oppression and Confronting Privilege 2nd Edition, Oxford Press.