University High School
Instructor: Ashley Worthington
Environmental Racism: The Structural Oppression of Minorities through Environmental Neglect
Environmental Racism: The Structural Oppression of Minorities through Environmental Neglect
In February 2022, a 7-year-old Slavic Village resident named Cayden Dillion was rushed to the emergency room after momentarily losing the ability to breathe (Czekalinski). He was later diagnosed with asthma, joining the rising number of cases among children in Cleveland communities with the chronic condition. Cayden's story symbolizes Cleveland's greater issue of environmental racism and its health-related consequences. Environmental racism is a form of structural oppression wherein government institutions and policies disproportionately exacerbate the effects of environmental degradation on people of color in marginalized communities (Patnaik). Despite government efforts to combat environmental racism on both local and federal levels, racial inequalities targeting African Americans and Latinos persist. These misguided efforts resulted from Cleveland's fundamental misunderstanding of the widening scope and magnitude of environmental injustices. Insofar as the dismantling of environmental racism is not prioritized by Cleveland's legislators, economic and environmental inequality will continue to grow and reinforce one another. The combination of historical, draconian legislation, the treatment of minority communities as waste dumping sites, and the absence of people of color in the environmental policy formulation process have exacerbated and sustained systemic environmental racism in Cleveland. However, Cleveland's policymakers can mitigate the structural issues that perpetuate environmental injustice by enacting egalitarian legislation and working closely with marginalized communities to implement a system of procedural justice.
A litany of misguided economic and environmental policies has created the racial inequality seen today that has, in turn, caused significantly worse health outcomes for African Americans and Latinos. Redlining, arguably the most damaging of these ill-advised legislations, refers to the division of cities into districts based on racial distribution by mortgage lenders (Gross). Introduced by the National Housing Act of 1934, this separation would determine which areas were supposedly high-risk regarding home loans and insurance. However, the term "high risk areas'' was a euphemism for neighborhoods with high African American and Latino populations. Although redlining has been outlawed since the Fair Housing Act of 1968 was passed, its lasting effects explain the disproportionate number of Black and Latino people under the poverty line (Campbell). Nadia Ahmad, professor of law at Barry University, posits that local and federal environmental law has perpetuated the inequalities set by redlining for decades. The tendency of legislative bodies in Cleveland to prioritize the environmental well-being of predominantly white areas clearly explains the disparity between property values in the inner cities and those in the suburbs (Ahmad). This trend reduced the ability of African Americans and Latinos to leave their inner-city residences for economically stable and environmentally safe neighborhoods. Moreover, low-income African Americans are unable to afford the basic preventative care services required to address pollution-caused health issues (Taylor). For example, lower air quality is associated with higher asthma rates for many African Americans and Latinos (Czekalinski). Black and Latino Clevelanders in previously redlined areas are financially unable to buy prescription drugs and outpatient hospital visits as a result of the $3,266 annual cost of asthma care, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Myhre). Redlining has also limited the ability of minorities to change their socio-economic and housing status, otherwise known as their residential mobility. When African Americans and Latinos are unable to acquire the necessary finances to move into new homes or neighborhoods, they fall victim to the inescapable cycle of inequality due to the lack of educational and financial resources. These marginalized groups are then forced to tolerate worse air quality and poor health outcomes for generations. Additionally, Harvard's Environmental & Energy Law Program states that there is no federal law governing environmental injustice (Perls). Therefore, specialized agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have no authority to mandate actions that address environmental injustice. There is a long history of oppression in economic and environmental policy, and the absence of systemic elements to combat environmental racism will perpetuate the inequalities between racial groups. From birth, African American and Latino children in Cleveland are economically, environmentally, and biologically oppressed due to the ongoing discriminatory policies predating their existence.
The deliberate placement of hazardous waste dump sites paired with the authorization of harmful pollutants in marginalized communities disproportionately harm minority communities in Cleveland. Most companies in Cleveland move their waste to landfills that are typically located on cheap land near low-income areas with a high percentage of African Americans and Latinos (Bullard). However, this toxic waste has long-term health effects on residents. A prime example of this trend is exhibited at Marion Motley Playfields Park, where African Americans in Cleveland are forced to witness a vibrant community park converted into a toxic landfill (Miller). Additionally, a report by Ohio's EPA demonstrates that the top polluting enterprises place their facilities within a one-mile radius of densely populated inner-city and low-income neighborhoods (Pagonakis). The United States Commission on Civil Rights supports this conclusion with their assessment that the top four polluters in Cleveland are all located in the vicinity of minority communities (Bullard). For instance, the Cleveland Laminating Corporation is located within a one-mile radius where 90 percent of residents identify as Black or Latino (Bullard). This phenomenon, in turn, causes lower air quality due to pollution and higher asthma rates for the marginalized groups located in these neighborhoods. The citizens of Cleveland's inner city are suffering from an infringement on their right to clean air. Furthermore, 28% of Black children in Broadway-Slavic Village have been diagnosed with asthma, which is more than twice the national average (Czekalinski). The disproportionate impact of asthma in Cleveland further illustrates the magnitude of environmental racism, which the government has still not acknowledged nor attempted to rectify (Columnist). According to Ohio's EPA, almost 20% of Cleveland's polluters are not in compliance with EPA standards (Pagonakis). This lack of accountability demonstrates the need for a department designed to enforce federal law concerning environmental injustice. The pollution generated by money-hungry companies has led to the oppression of minorities through systemic racism and a general disregard for their health.
The lack of communication between oppressed minorities and politically powerful individuals has prevented any beneficial legislation in response to environmental racism against African Americans and Latinos, which has consequently prolonged their undeserved suffering. In Cleveland, climate reform has been centered around the needs of the white majority rather than the minorities who have been disproportionately impacted by climate change. This discriminatory practice comes from a lack of government efforts to connect with minority groups and activist organizations (Colman). To understand the scope of climate change, Ohio's EPA must turn to those impacted the most before pursuing further action. Insofar as minorities continue to be neglected in the policy formulation process, the inequality plaguing environmental issues will not just persist; it will grow (Soloman et al.). Moreover, local government officials' oversight of the personal, experiential perspective that marginalized communities can provide is the driving force behind ineffective climate policies (Roberts et al.). Furthermore, since environmental racism has dismantled the vulnerable Black and Latino communities, they have an unmatched passion to address the environmental injustices plaguing their neighborhoods. Additionally, there is a distinct lack of Black and Latino representation in political and legislative positions, especially in those concerning the environment. The reason for this lack of diversity is twofold: first, politicians of color in Cleveland have been oppressed at large and targeted through the lobbying of political elites (Bamforth). Second, environmental leadership positions are not endorsed among students of color, partially due to the lack of existing role models for these students to aspire to be (Wason). Cleveland's government has done an insufficient job of communicating with minority groups, leading to the exacerbation of environmental racism.
Systemic changes to Cleveland's environmental programs and laws are crucial to the mitigation of environmental racism. Environmental racism stems from a history of misguided or outright unjust political action, so state actors must fix the policies which have forced African Americans and Latinos to face environmental injustice in two ways. First, harsher policies regulating the environmental actions of polluting corporations need to be enacted. In 2019, Ohio's EPA succumbed to lobbying from these companies which advised coal facilities to operate in low-income neighborhoods (Zuckerman). These enterprises ought to be forbidden from building polluting factories near underprivileged neighborhoods to promote the general well-being and health of African Americans and Latinos in Cleveland. New York City, for example, has been effective at deterring environmentally harmful corporations from shifting their toxic waste on oppressed communities (Owen-Chaplin). Second, Cleveland should supply more funding for treatment for the health outcomes of environmental racism such as asthma. Cleveland's current body of environmental law fails to provide the resources to treat the disproportionate number of Black children with asthma, whereas cities like San Francisco have earmarked $12 million to address poor air quality in marginalized communities (Javorsky). Despite Cleveland's minimal funding compared to that of San Francisco, a part of Ohio's EPA budget of $223 million can be dedicated to those already affected by environmental catastrophes (Doskocil). At the very least, Cleveland government officials should provide a statement of acknowledgement of environmental racism. A lack of funding and government recognition of environmental racism can be solved by regulating polluting enterprises and redistributing funds to prioritize the minorities most in need.
It is imperative that government bodies in Cleveland employ procedural justice by cooperating with marginalized, low-income neighborhoods to create targeted plans against environmental racism. Procedural justice is a form of the decision-making process which calls for equal opportunity for all involved parties to voice their opinions and concerns (Fischer). Conversations about the environment require procedural justice, which can be promoted in two applications. First, Cleveland should designate a government body to oversee and facilitate communication between oppressed groups and policymakers. If government officials were provided resources to inform them how climate change targets minorities, their legislation can be built upon a better representation of who is affected by environmental degradation (Banzhaf). Second, opening a dialogue with Cleveland's youth could inspire a new generation of advocates to combat the effects of inequality. Organizations like The Black Environmental Leaders Association and The Center for Community Solutions demonstrate the interest Cleveland's future leaders have in remedying the discriminatory practices of the past (Glaser). The encouragement of young people of color to become involved in the betterment of their community can lead to more representation of minorities in environmental law leadership. Thus, prioritizing marginalized communities in climate discussions can help reduce environmental racism and increase diversity in positions of power.
Every human has the right to a safe environment which ought to be upheld by local and national governments. However, the sociopolitical and economic systems in place have deprived innocent African Americans and Latinos of this fundamental human need. The ability to breathe clean air and access safe drinking water has been stripped of certain groups of individuals for something as trivial as a racial identity. Insofar as Cleveland does not prioritize the eradication of environmental racism, people of color living in marginalized communities will continue to be treated as less than human. Oppressive redlining policies and a history of environmental laws centered around political elites exacerbate inequality by disenfranchising African Americans and Latinos. Moreover, Cleveland's current environmental legislation fails to reflect any effort to remedy the injustices of the past. A systematic restructuring of Cleveland's environmental programs, which includes discourse with affected minorities is essential not just to the reduction of environmental racism, but to the alleviation of systematic inequality in Cleveland. Although a reconstruction of political institutions is not a quick nor easy solution, it is imperative to the socioeconomic and medical wellbeing of Cleveland's people of color. As citizens of Cleveland, it is our moral obligation to rise against the oppressive institutions that dehumanize our fellow citizens by working towards the reduction and eventual elimination of environmental racism.
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