The environment can be racist too – if you let it.

Planning of green spaces, from the past to the present, can be structures of racism. It’s time to learn a little about this issue.

Inner harbor of Baltimore Maryland during the day. National Aquarium and Hard Rock Cafe are shown.
PC: Elizabeth Schap just B more

The environment can be racist too – if you let it.

Planning of green spaces, from the past to the present, can be structures of racism. It’s time to learn a little about this issue.

Perhaps you have heard of the phrase environmental justice or environmental racism/inequality. If you have not, welcome to your first lesson on this important topic. Being an environmental teacher myself, you’ve come to an okay place to start your education. (I’m white so I’m not the best place, hence the “okay.”) Don’t worry, I’ll be providing you with better resources to further your education. This is just an introduction to the concept.

Over a decade ago, at the beginning of my teaching career, I made the decision to create a short lesson on something called environmental racism. It was the mid-2000’s, so the topic didn’t receive much (if any attention) from the general public. In fact, even though the term was coined by Dr. Benjamin Chavis in the early 1980’s, it wasn’t something I was officially taught in any school or college curriculum. Regardless of my lack of formal education, when I finally came across the concept I knew exactly what was meant by it: the fact that the places where the most pollution, toxic chemicals and industrial buildings were located also housed poor Black, Indigenous and people of color. This was a definition of my own making at the time. I did not live the experience, instead witnessing it when I took a job as a camp counselor.

Growing up in Maryland it’s hard to forget the first time you hear a child say they have never been to the beach. Never seen the ocean. Never boated on the Chesapeake Bay. I mean, sure my family didn’t own either the boat or condo at Ocean City, but that didn’t prevent us from going. Everyone I knew seemed to take trips down the ocean, throw chicken necks off a dock while crabbin’ and at least rent or borrow a friend’s canoe to row through the salt marsh. Being on the water was the Maryland way of life, like snowballs and Berger cookies.

So I was completely floored to hear a child profess they’d been born and raised in Maryland and yet NEVER enjoyed any of these rites of passage. I also learned they had never seen stars or even darkness at night; never walked through a forest or driven over state lines. In fact, most of the children at this summer camp hadn’t been outside of the neighborhood.

I was a young 18 then and brand new to the experience of Baltimore City students. It only took one week into summer camp to learn the truth: Black children and other people of color don’t often have the same experiences with the environment as their white peers. I had grown up with visits to the Eastern Shore, hikes at Gunpowder Falls, and swimming at my grandparents house in Middle River. The children I was currently teaching to make friendship bracelets had (by their description) trash filled city streets, buses that didn’t take you to a hiking trail, and the city incinerator in their backyard. (Not that they actually had a backyard.)

Spending summer after summer working camps with diverse populations of children quickly taught me the unfairness of life isn’t just words. It is also in planning of a living space and the determination of who will be living there. I was seeing environmental racism first hand in these children’s neighborhoods and stories, even if I didn’t yet have the words for it.

Later, I learned that environmental racism (injustice/inequality) is when people are exposed to pollution, discriminatory land use plans or exposed to other detrimental environmental practices based on the color of their skin. My students were miles away from any true city where many of these practices happen. They would have no clue this unacceptable situation existed. The notion would never cross their minds because environmental racism wasn’t a thing for them.

To hear about how kids their age where made to live shocked and disturbed them. It was unsettling to them, to say the absolute least, that anyone in Maryland could be made to live that way. This was something that happened to people in those “third-world countries” they always heard about but couldn’t name. This wasn’t something that happened at home. Many of my students couldn’t accept it was a fact and rejected the information, even with the definition, printed in bold, there in the textbook.

Those were the thoughts of my students in the mid-2000’s. A lot has happened since then. The concept of environmental racism is not something which is outright ignored as it once was. High profile cases of environmental injustices like the devastation of poor Black communities after Hurricane Katrina and the Flint Michigan water crisis have brought environmental racism to the center of water cooler talk. The fact that Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) are placed in degraded environments full of industrial contaminants while white people are surrounded by parks and green spaces is not as easily dismissed any longer.

However, the injustice has not been fixed by a long shot. Environmental regulations need to be enforced in low-income communities. Future planning needs to be made with the intention of righting these wrongs or better yet, preventing them from occurring in the first place. Communities need to be given the funding and access to resources that will allow them to rebuild their neighborhoods. And white people need to stop blaming those forced into these situations for the outcome. No one chooses to live next to an incinerator if there are other affordable options available. Trust me, you’re not the only person who wants a nice looking neighborhood.

As I said, this is just your introduction to the topic of environmental justice and injustice. There is more to learn. Here are some great places to start:

  • Avoice is an online, “library is a central source of information about historical and contemporary African American policy issues important to researchers, academics, educators and students.” There is a special section dedicated to environmental justice and Hurricane Katrina.
  • What the Eyes Don’t See by Mona Hanna-Attisha is a must read if you haven’t already. It is the story of the Flint Michigan water crisis as told by the Doctor who discovered the health crisis in the first place. If you decide to purchase a copy, may I suggest this list of Baltimore owned Black Bookstores and others across the United States you can support.
  • Finally, to learn about other environmental issues affecting BIPOC take a look through the website Intersectional Environmentalist. It is an up-and-coming site but don’t let the newness fool you, there is a lot of good information here.

The article The environment can be racist too – if you let it, was written by Elizabeth Schap and first appeared on Medium and just B more.

Want to help me with my writing career? Like, comment or share this post! I will be forever grateful and owe you a beverage of your choice should we ever hang.

2 comments

  1. Might be your best yet, Informative, direct and to the point, does not wander,neither critical or soft soaped.

    Gave me places to follow up on the subject. Your grandparents lived in Long Beach Estates, across from the Glen L. Martin Airport, NOT MIDDLE RIVER.

    You got to take both the good and bad in reviews.
    See you soon, DAD

    Like

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