A silent environmental crisis surrounds San Ramon


Sarah Kim

Environmental racism hurts low-income communities by harming their health, near and far.

Daniela Wise-Rojas, Social Media Editor

The lack of awareness surrounding environmental racism is jarring and threatens the future of our community. When one hears the term “racism,” our minds autopilot to segregation and the criminal justice system. Environmental racism is the practice of implementing policies and actions that discriminate against low-income communities, such as polluting their water and building cancerous plants near homes and schools. The residents of these communities often have life-threatening health issues due to landfills, toxic waste dumps and polluted air and water. More people need to be aware of this because it is just as wrong as any other type of discrimination, and it is more prevalent than people presume.

A commonplace example is right in our backyard: West Oakland. According to the Greenlining Institute, greenhouse gas emissions are a major concern in Oakland, with over half of the toxic emissions linked to transportation. Especially in West Oakland, “a predominantly black, low-income community, residents are five times more likely to be exposed to toxic pollution than in the increasingly gentrified parts of Oakland.”

In February of last year, the city of Oakland filed an environmental justice lawsuit with Santos Engineering Inc., an Oakland-based debris hauling company, “alleging that it deliberately blew dust into the nearby West Oakland neighborhood in violation of the city’s zoning laws.” An injunction was later issued on April 3, 2018, ordering the owner to cease the transportation of debris to his West Oakland warehouse, but this didn’t solve all the problems nor did it lessen the negative impact it had on its citizens.

Residents, such as 71-year-old Barbara Johnson, told KQED how much the air quality affected her and her family on a daily basis, ever since Santos started operations. Johnson emphasized how her eyes are swollen from the moment she wakes up, she is unable breathe and is constantly feeling lightheaded. Johnson commented how she had to send her grandchildren to go live with relatives over winter break, because of how bad the dust was. She also mentioned how she noticed coatings of dust on her neighbor’s cars and rooftops.

To make matters worse, the Oakland fire department inspected the facility in January, finding that the company was in violation of Oakland’s fire requirements. Although the owner is complying with all investigations, this is not enough because it’s only one specific case.

As a whole, West Oakland has 90 times more diesel pollution per square mile on average compared to the entire state of California, and residents can expect to live nine years shorter than other Californians. However, because it’s a silent crisis that no one talks about, nor does it get much attention, not many people know about it. Environmental racism is prevalent throughout cities in the U.S., but many fail to make the connection between low-income communities and toxic environments.

A common argument brought forward in the case of environmental racism is that it simply doesn’t exist; it portrays minorities as victims, and it’s a politicized term. Although on the surface it doesn’t seem like a bad argument, environmental racism is actually a legitimate term whose initial roots stem from the U.S. in the 1960s when the definition of the term “racism” was no longer based on a specific set of beliefs, these beliefs-that race was determined by culture-creating the notion that some cultures were more superior than others. It became more of an umbrella term that notioned to the “practices, attitudes, and beliefs that supported the notion of racial superiority and inferiority.”

While people should understand what environmental racism is and why it matters, they also must understand how it is a topic — along with climate change and other environmental matters — that has often been politicized in unnecessary ways. This is not just a meme that can be tossed around on social media; it is people’s lives. With people around the globe suffering from poisoned water and air, Oakland is just one prime example that is relevant to the area we live in. Claiming that environmental racism doesn’t exist won’t solve the issue.

“It’s dangerous. I think it’s really a shame. Climate science and environmental science have become so politicized in this country when a lot of other very developed countries accepted a scientific fact and have appropriately moved in the direction of trying to prevent some of these negative consequences from happening,” Dougherty AP Environmental Science teacher Mrs. Annie Nyugen commented.

More individuals must be educated on this topic, starting with school. When students are unaware of these atrocities via environmental discrimination, students can’t do anything about it. While environmental racism is not explicitly stated as part of the College Board curriculum for AP Environmental Science, teachers such as Nguyen admit that it’s important to think about how science can affect the environment, and how the environment affects the world we live in.

Environmental racism is a term very few know about, and it may seem like no one should care simply because it only seems to happen in certain areas. Nguyen notes that what many people are blind to is that environmental racism “can be issues that we hear [about] and see in Oakland … it’s not just some country that’s heavily populated [or] somewhere on a completely different continent. It’s people who live thirty minutes away from us.” The United States of America is a first-world country, yet it has some of the poorest cities and is home to all kinds of environmental racism.

“I think it’s really important that when we are accessing this curriculum, we are thinking about the people. So, I do try to have a variety of perspectives, not just to say these are issues that only impact lesser developed countries because they can happen [anywhere],” Nguyen emphasized. The amount of students that are educated on this topic can not only affect how they think about the environment, but what they do with their lives and their careers.

Environmental racism prevents us, as a country, from moving forward. People need to remember that being ignorant about something like discrimination is just as bad as contributing to it. Not everyone is privileged enough to live in a community where diversity is embraced, and the least that people can do is hear them out. Listen to their stories and think about how your own decisions affect the environment around you and others. Teach other people why this matters. It isn’t just happening in California — it’s happening in our own backyard.