Sunday, March 5, 2017

Red Herrings and Injustice

While the Russia connection with the tRump campaign is deeply disturbing and disconcerting and his off-the-chain claims about Obama wire tapping tRump Tower are problematic, I wonder if we are falling for the showman's tricks again...petulantly thrown out red herrings.  If they are not his red herrings, then those around them are using his verbal fertilizer that way.

Image by Durova from Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA
With all the bluster about Putin, Russia, and tRump's possible/probable paranoia, I'm concerned about some of the behind-the-curtain shenanigans and what they could mean for our future.

Image from Pintrest
This week some of the tRump administration's plans for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) came to light and one of the most heinous revelations is that the administration wants to cut the budget by 24% and staffing by 20%, which includes eliminating the office for environmental justice, which means that environmental racism will be even more unchecked.  For those who may not be familiar with the term--it is not a high traffic term--environmental justice is defined by the office itself as:
...the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.
Environmental racism refers to the to the fact that marginalized communities comprised of people of color are frequently exposed to much higher levels of pollution, thus exposed to much higher risk than predominantly white communities.  The Goldman Environmental Fund noted that race
...plays a determining role in environmental policies regarding land use, zoning and regulations. As a result, African American, Latino, indigenous and low-income communities are more likely to live next to a coal-fired power plant, landfill, refinery or other highly polluting facility. These communities bear a disproportionate burden of toxic contamination as a result of pollution in and around their neighborhoods. Moreover, these communities have historically had a diminished response capacity to fight back against such policies.
Image by Alfred Palmer from Wikimedia Commons, public domain
One of the most recent devastating examples of environmental racism has been the Flint, MI water crisis.  In this case, the choice to switch the city water supply to the Flint River was pitched as a cost-saving measure, but it was a case of environmental classism and racism because Flint is a very poor city with a high population of people of color.  In a 2016 story for The New York Times, John Eligon starts with an inescapable question: "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?"  The thousands of emails released about the water crisis show that the population of the city was less important that cost-cutting and so they were deemed to be functionally dispensable, even though race was not explicitly mentioned.  Eligon observed that
Environmental decisions are often related to political power. In some cities, garbage incinerators have been built in African-American neighborhoods that do not have the political clout to block them. In Michigan, where blacks are 14 percent of the population and the state government is dominated by Republicans, Flint has little political power.
 So, while the Flint crisis may not have been an overt gesture of environmental racism, it is an example of systemic or institutional racism, a manifestation of Whiteness.  The dangerous nature of the water was well known, indeed, "years ago ]the river[ was a repository for industrial waste from the city’s once booming, now almost extinct, factories," Eligon wrote, but the people of flint were all but invisible to the state.

Ruth Frankenberg wrote that Whiteness is a "'stand point,' a place from which White people look at ourselves, at others, and at society" and is "a set of cultural practices that are usually unmarked and unnamed" (as cited in DiAngelo, 2011, p. 56).*  DiAngelo expounds on this point when she observed that
Whiteness is thus conceptualized as a constellation of processes and practices [that are] dynamic, relational, and operating at all times on a myriad of levels.  These processes and practices include basic rights, values, beliefs, perspectives and experiences purportedly to be commonly shared by all but which are actually only consistently afforded to white people. (p. 56)
Whiteness is largely invisible to those who benefit from it and thus makes very little sense to them when learning of it, but it can have very real and even drastic effects on people of color.  In the case of Flint, the environmental racism manifested itself in that decision makers completely ignored the health risk for the sake of finances.  Profits over people.

A young woman in Louisiana's Cancer Alley, image from Pintrest
Another maddeningly tragic example is Louisiana's infamous Cancer alley on the Delta, where largely African-American communities are constantly exposed to carcinogens from "over 150 petrol companies and 17 refineries," according to a 2015 article on The IND Monthly website, leading to unusually high rates of cancer in an 85 mile stretch aling the Mississippi River.  (For a fuller description of Cancer Alley and other instances of environmental racism, see Dr. Robert Ballard's Dumping in Dixie.)

If tRump's proposed cuts to the EPA hold up, there are sure to be at least dozens of more Flints and Cancer Alleys in our future.

* DiAngelo, R.  (2011).  White fragility.  International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, 3(3), 54-70.

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