My family drank fluoridated water from the city taps when I was born, over 40 years ago. We lived in newly built housing close to a well-maintained park; my mother bought fresh produce at a nearby grocery and weekend farmers’ markets. When my parents moved out of the city a few years later, I found myself in a verdant suburb with expansive lawns, a gurgling neighborhood creek, and air so fresh I never thought to notice it.
Year after cavity-free year of my childhood, dentists and hygienists praised my superior flossing and brushing skills as if I had created that outcome—though in reality, my tooth-cleaning habits were no different from those of any other child.
I carry the bodily imprint of my racial privilege right down to the strength of my teeth.
The families and children of Flint, Michigan, have also been drinking water that changes the makeup of their bodies. Some health consequences of their exposure to lead-contaminated water became apparent almost immediately, back in early 2014—severe and lingering skin rashes, for instance—while others will only reveal themselves over time. Even low levels of lead can have a profoundly negative impact on a developing child’s growth, intelligence, learning ability, and behavior.
We still don’t know how many of the roughly 100,000 people who live in this black-majority city will be affected in the long run. In an interview with the New York Times, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician whose research forced government officials to finally acknowledge Flint’s water crisis, estimated at least 8,000 young children at risk of serious neurological damage.
Just how sweeping are the consequences of lead poisoning? In Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s words: “If you were going to put something in a population to keep them down for generations to come, it would be lead.”
In the same article, a parent remembers what one state nurse told her when she raised concerns about the water’s impact on her son: “It is just a few IQ points….It is not the end of the world.”
Not the end of whose world? I might be tempted to ask.
If I didn’t already know.
It can be tempting, as a white USian, to see racism in only the most obvious, overt, and personal displays. Hateful slurs shouted out a car window. A town of people blocking a bus of undocumented immigrants from passing through. A young woman shoved and screamed at by members of the audience at a political rally.
Horrific and disgusting as such displays are, however, to focus solely on them is to miss the structural racism built into the bones of our capitalist society. The racial inequities that determine which people can live here but not there, can access these resources but not those, deserve this consideration but not that. I am sure, for instance, no one snarled bigotries in the quiet office of the Emergency Manager appointed by Michigan’s Governor Rick Snyder, the day he switched Flint’s water source without first ensuring the city’s lead pipes could withstand the higher acidity of river water without corroding.
Environmental racism involves the practice of displacing toxicity from wealthy white neighborhoods to communities predominantly inhabited by people of color. Long-documented evidence shows black and brown-bodied people compelled to live in areas with the worst pollution, the least access to clean air and water, and a myriad of other environmental factors that contribute to or cause health complications, up to and including death.
To borrow a phrase from environmental scholar Eric Loomis: “Those with the least power end up closest to the poisons.”
Imagine being a parent in Flint, holding your toddler’s hands as they clench tight to yours, balancing for their first steps. Imagine not knowing how much lead has already reached your child’s fragile, developing brain. How terrified are you? How terrorized do you feel?
In the early 1990s, the mayor of New York City began implementing far harsher police tactics in its poor, minority neighborhoods. This followed by roughly a decade the federal government’s escalation of its so-called War on Drugs, which (in combination with high mandatory minimum sentencing and three-strikes laws) increased the country’s prison population to staggering proportions. And when violent crime rates began to fall by the mid-‘90s, state and federal officials claimed victory—and found justification to continue or expand violent policing in communities of color.
But this is not the causal story told by the actual statistics.
More recent statistical analysis reveals that the drop in violent crime correlates not to aggressive policing in minority neighborhoods but to the reduced dependence on leaded gasoline implemented decades earlier. In fact, as Mother Jones reports, “gasoline lead may explain as much as 90 percent of the rise and fall of violent crime over the past half century.”
It’s not just in the US, either. Researchers have found the same correlation in countries around the globe.
To echo Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s words in Flint: If you want to keep a population down for generations to come, give them lead. Combine that lead with racist stereotypes that see black and brown bodies as inherently more violent and aggressive than white bodies, you won’t even have to acknowledge your own culpability for their decimation.
What is the dollar value of a human right?
Under a capitalist system, this question—which ought to be unthinkable—gets frequently thought.
In order to answer the question without your tongue cleaving to the roof of your mouth in the process, you must first un-declare certain things as rights. Things like water.
Take the international mega-corporation Nestlé, for instance, which came under scrutiny last year for sourcing its bottled water from southern California in the midst of that state’s severe drought (and under a national parks permit that expired a quarter-century earlier). The company’s CEO made headlines a few years prior when he declared “water is not a human right” but a commodity to be privatized.
To deny people access to clean water and breathable air is to stunt the capacity of their bodies to flourish. Environmental racism foists the burdens of capitalism’s poisonous byproducts onto those whose bodies it deems unworthy of protection. Disposable, right along with the waste and refuse deposited in their backyards.
We are born from water, and in a world free from body terrorism, water would be an unquestioned birthright of every human being.
There is no dollar value of a human right.
From radioactive waste left on Navajo Land to toxic air from the highways surrounding Boyle Heights, California, whose population is over 90 percent Latinx, exposure to poison is a constant reality for far too many communities of color. When those poisons inevitably stunt and diminish the body’s capacity, far too often the victims are themselves expected to shoulder the blame for injustices done to them.
When Eric Garner lay handcuffed and dying on a New York City sidewalk in 2014, after having been put in an illegal chokehold by police, his final, haunting words were, “I can’t breathe… I can’t breathe…” But Rep. Peter King (R-NY) later argued that Garner, who suffered from asthma, was largely at fault for his own death. That his own imperfect and failed body carried ultimate responsibility.
Such grotesque victim-blaming not only attempts to erase the police violence done to Mr. Garner but also relies on hiding the environmental racism that makes asthma a far more deadly disease among minorities than whites USians.
Do you ever wonder, as I do: what child is choking on air as she walks to school, in order for me to have trendy seasoning for my breakfast eggs?
More Radical Reads: The New York Times, Racism, and the Politics of Discomfort
The structural systems that enforce environmental racism and contribute to its devastating impact are many, and interlocking. The justice movements required to oppose and dismantle it must be equally far-reaching and collaborative. Together we must act, and together we can.
The Keystone Pipeline, a proposed project to transport tar-sands from Canada across the continental US that would have crossed native lands belonging to a number of tribes, was ultimately defeated by the combined efforts of indigenous peoples and environmental activists.
To raise up a population for generations to come, first ensure all people’s basic rights are protected.
Body-rights of us all.
[Feature Image: A fair skin person with long sandy brown hair wearing a grey hooded sweatshirt and black coat stands holding out two bottles of water. Both are of contaminated water, the one on the left is completely brown while the one on the right is a light brown color. Source: Film still from A Messeage To Gov. Richard Dale Synder – YouTube]