Issues Of The Environment: Building Bridges To End Environmental Racism

Feb 24, 2021

Justin Onwenu, Environmental Justice Organizer for the Sierra Club
Credit LinkedIn / linkedin.com

The movement towards racial equity is an ongoing fight.  Environmental racism has been an issue in our area since the industrial revolution, and it persists today, inflicting the most harm on communities of color.  In another Black History Month edition of "Issues of the Environment," WEMU's David Fair and the Sierra Club's Justin Onwenu explore problems and solutions in the effort to bring environmental injustice to an end. 


Overview

  • There is no possibility of separating environmental injustice from racial inequality in America. “There is a need for us to be confronted with the specific ways in which environmental racism is embedded in our society.”
  • In Southeast Michigan, air quality is worse in zip codes where people of color are concentrated out of economic necessity.  Noxious industrial facilities set up shop in these areas.  The NAACP reports, “68% of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant, a reality that is tied to increased birth defects, heart disease, asthma, lung disease, learning difficulties, and lower property values, all disproportionately affecting African American communities in the U.S.  On the flip side, African Americans hold only 1.1% of energy-related jobs and gain only .01% of the revenue from energy-related industries.” (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.betterfutureproject.org/fossil_fuel_industry_racist
  • Hazardous waste disposal facilities have long located themselves in these same zip codes.  It took 33 years of chronic environmental violations for Detroit’s noxious incinerator in the heart of the city to close.  Right now, whiter cities in Michigan quietly (and generally with little awareness by the inhabitants) send hazardous waste, including PFAS, to US Ecology (storage and disposal service) in Detroit.
  • The Black Lives Matter movement has thrust the concept of inherent racism (the idea that unaccounted for privileges based on race leads to unconscious biases in humanity) into the world’s consciousness.  As a result, environmental injustices in communities of color are getting more mainstreamed attention.  Still, it takes more than awareness to create change. 
  • Justin Onwenu, Environmental Justice Organizer for the Sierra Club, is working to advance several policies in the Michigan legislature that create meaningful regulations that make it more difficult for polluters to exploit the vulnerability of communities of color.  These include tougher polluter pay laws.  During the COVID pandemic, Justin used Facebook to connect people and resources.  He believes solutions to environmental racism boil down to empathy.  He says, “Starting this Facebook group with friends has made me realize we are a lot more capable of building solidarity across differences, whether they be racial, geographic or otherwise, than I think we give ourselves credit for.  I think politics is important.  I think becoming civically engaged is important.  But I do think that human connection and that empathy - sometimes we just forget it.  This pandemic has been a reminder that building those relationships and building that empathy, building that solidarity is possible if we work hard for it.”

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at 734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu