Juneteenth: Highlighting Environmental Racism

Juneteenth: Highlighting Environmental Racism

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The Importance of Juneteenth

The 1863 Emancipation Proclamation was issued by President Abraham Lincoln, and aimed to free all slaves in the USA. In reality, it took years for the news of this proclamation to spread across the country, and the original proclamation only applied to the Confederate States, and it was the Thirteenth Amendment that finally ended slavery in the entirety of the USA. However, within areas still under Confederate control, the Emancipation Proclamation was not implemented until Union troops arrived in Texas to announce that the slaves were free by executive decree. This occurred on June 19th, 1865, and was known as “Juneteenth”. The period that followed the emancipation was known as Reconstruction, where formerly enslaved people made great strides toward transforming their lives. In honour of the anniversary of this extremely important day, this seems like a great opportunity to discuss how racism can affect someone’s likelihood of exposure to environmental hazards and pollutants. This is referred to as environmental racism.

The Effects of Environmental Racism

Environmental racism is the disproportionate exposure of marginalized communities to environmental hazards and pollutants. This is seen in the impact of Canadian wildfires on the Indigenous community, as they have close ties to the land and these wildfires threaten their homes. 

Another example of this is the lead contamination in the water in Flint, Michigan in 2014. Residents complained that the water supplied to them from the Flint River looked, smelled, and tasted awful. Protests were put on by residents, but they were brushed off, as officials insisted that the water was safe. The following year, a study by Virginia Tech found that 17% of water samples were contaminated above the federally accepted standards, indicating a need for change. Relatedly, it was found that lead levels in the blood of children had doubled since 2014, and in certain neighbourhoods, it had nearly tripled. Lead is incredibly harmful to children’s development, and is associated with many cognitive and motor deficits. This is clearly yet another example of how less privileged children are more likely to experience environmental hazards and pollutants, due primarily to practices such as redlining. This is a discriminatory practice involving the systemic denial of services to residents of certain areas based on race or ethnicity. A study in 1983 found that 75% of hazardous waste sites across eight states were in low-income neighbourhoods that were primarily made up of people of colour. Subsequent studies found that this trend was not restricted to the eight states initially covered in the study.

A third example of environmental racism is the Dakota Access Pipeline, built in 2016 to transport crude oil. The proposed path for this pipeline crossed the Missouri River near to a privileged (and primarily White) area in North Dakota. This route was rejected due to the potential threat to the water supply in the area in case of an oil spill. The eventual pathway for the pipeline crossed under an Indigenous tribe’s primary water source and the concerns expressed by this group were ignored. A federal court ruled that the permits for the project were illegally approved, and a thorough review of the environmental impact was ordered. This review is still ongoing.

Steps Toward a Better Future

To counteract the effects of environmental racism, extra measures must be taken to listen to the communities affected and ensure that no one is being disproportionately affected by environmental hazards and pollutants. In general, no one should be exposed to lead or other contaminants in their water supply, but this is especially important to focus on in the context of disadvantaged communities, as it perpetuates the struggles they face in their lives, and can worsen their quality of life and make it more difficult for them to improve their lives. Change starts with listening to the affected communities, making sure there are representatives that have a part in the decision making processes surrounding the policies that affect their lives. 

References

Brockie, J., & Han, S. (2023, August). Opinion: Environmental racism and Canada’s wildfires. Canadian Geographic. https://canadiangeographic.ca/articles/opinion-environmental-racism-and-canadas-wildfires/

Flint Water crisis: Everything you need to know. (2024, April 30). https://www.nrdc.org/stories/flint-water-crisis-everything-you-need-know#update

The historical Legacy of Juneteenth. (n.d.). National Museum of African American History and Culture. https://nmaahc.si.edu/explore/stories/historical-legacy-juneteenth

redlining. (n.d.). LII / Legal Information Institute. https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/redlining

What is environmental racism? (2024, March 26). https://www.nrdc.org/stories/what-environmental-racism

About Post Author

Aliyah Knetsch

Aliyah is a fourth year BSc Psychology student at the University of Waterloo, and she is a Research Assistant with EnvironFocus.
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