Environmental racism is not a joke

September 15, 2017

A disturbing trend has been sweeping right-wing media that combines anti-environmental sentiment, racism and hatred of college students and protest movements. Right-wing YouTubers, social media moguls and news sources have been ridiculing the concept of environmental racism.

Environmental racism is the tendency for the effects of climate change and pollution to be directed toward people of color. The concept does not imply that the actual weather is somehow racist, but rather that the powers that be direct the effects of environmentally harmful behavior, like air and water pollution, toward disadvantaged communities of color.

Of course, right-wing media like Breitbart reports on the concept of environmental racism differently. A 2016 article is titled “Guardian: Global Warming is ‘Racist’,” in reference to a Guardian article describing the effects of environmental racism. The Breitbart article reports that the Guardian supports the “wild theory that global warming is a racist crisis, perpetrated by wealthy whites.” It goes on to use the Guardian article as an example of the ridiculousness of the liberal media.

There are similar example in the less-formal corners of the right-wing media. Popular conservative YouTuber Chris Ray Gun posted a video, also in 2016, titled “GLOBAL WARMING is RACIST!—Black Lives Matter vs. Air.” The title of the video is an obvious hyperbole meant to attract as many clicks as possible using shock value by using crude humor to claim Black Lives Matter activists think that people of color are being personally targeted by the weather.
The problem with these articles and videos is the fact that they minimize the issue of environmental racism by taking the name at face value and turning it into a joke. Readers and viewers come away from this content thinking that they understand what activist groups mean by the term “environmental racism,” and are thus not open to actually considering the issue or helping to solve it.

The examples from Breitbart and Chris Ray Gun follow just after a British chapter of Black Lives Matter released a video explaining environmental racism, and protested to shut down an expansion of the London City Airport that would displace lower income London residents. Conservative and Neo Nazi groups were quick to turn the concept of environmental racism into a compelling strawman that made the Black Lives Matter movement look unreasonable, generating valuable readership from racist readers and viewers.

This warped view on environmental racism is not only irresponsible journalism, but it also has the potential to worsen the situation of actual victims of environmental racism. One of the key examples of environmental racism in America is that of Flint, Michigan. Most Americans probably know about the water crisis in Flint. The town’s water supply has been contaminated with lead since 2014, and despite extensive press coverage, charitable donations and charges leveled against community officials, the water has yet to be fixed. The U.S. Census shows that Flint is 57 percent black and 41 percent below the poverty line. The racial and economic makeup of the town paints a clear picture of why it still lacks clean water. Citizens lack the social power to force the state government to fix the water pipes. If the water in Newton or Chestnut Hill was found to have a similar lead content, I’m confident the issue would be fixed within days.
Additionally, the environmental changes associated with climate change, such as flooding, can affect people of color—especially those in formerly colonized countries—with the most severity. In wealthier, whiter areas, residents can afford houses constructed to withstand floods and flood insurance in case the house is damaged. Hurricane Irma’s recent movement over Florida exemplifies this phenomenon. While wealthier residents could afford to leave their jobs and evacuate on airplanes or by car, poorer Floridians had to either shell out large portions of their income on gas or transportation tickets, or stay home and try to weather out the storm. The economic aspect of evacuation was made clear when a Marriott boat helping escaping the hurricane refused to allow non-Marriott tourists onto the boat, leaving with 200 empty seats, and leaving many tourists and residents stranded. This economic aspect of Irma puts poorer Floridians, who are statistically likely to be people of color, in danger, both physically and financially.

When sites like Breitbart turn the tragedy of environmental racism into a strawman mockery of anti-racist and activist groups, they bring the victims of environmental racism further from the help that they need. They use lies to bait their readerships into contributing to violence and victimization of marginalized people. It’s unclear what portion of politically active Americans are actually buying the alt-right definition of environmental racism, but its effects on marginalized people probably won’t improve unless more people realize the reality, cruelty and ultimate avoidability of environmental racism.

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