Environmental racism- environmental manipulation that knowingly and intentionally impacts people of color with disproportionate severity.
Individuals, corporations, and countries with power and money have benefited from the contamination and destruction of the land on which people of color and poor people live; places where they expect powerless resistance at most. For example, if you want to build a power plant, oil pipeline, or any other destructive, contamination-yielding method for the extraction of natural resources, you’re not going to put it in a white, wealthy community.
But the industrial-level extraction of resources like energy, precious metals, and wildlife (to name a few), both in the U.S. and around the world, have always been at the expense of black and brown bodies, dating back to the elimination of Indigenous peoples from their lands and the forced physical labor of my African ancestors to build European settlements.
The dangerous thing about systemic racism, ethnocentrism, and the colonialism mindset that has driven the exploits of the European majority in countries like the U.S., is that even the proposed solutions to the environmental destruction they have caused are at the expense of people of color and the poor–even in the name of environmental conservation.
In the world of environmental conservation, many of us (myself included), have been taught that “the wild” must be protected at all costs. The same racism, ethnocentrism, and colonialism that justified environmental destruction in the places inhabited by people of color (especially Indigenous people groups) and the poor, is informing the strategies for restoration. For example, conservation groups “advocating” for the natural world have, countless times, valued the lives of animals over the lives of human beings. They have made it illegal for people to hunt where they have always hunted, and live where they have always lived. Even from across the world, the privileged and powerful European majorities have exerted violent control over the lives of the most vulnerable.
Conservation must be JUST. As we can see, this will not happen automatically; it must be built into the plan. Conservation cannot be led by the privileged and powerful. Human rights must come first, not last.
If you are a person, organization, or government committed to the restoration of the natural world, you must intentionally respect and understand the needs, desires, and lifestyles of the front-line communities (those directly affected by the issue at hand). Your contributions should follow their lead.
Remember the case I made for the need for diversity? (If not, see “I think you’re the token”). It especially applies here. Thankfully, as various fields within the realm of conservation include more people of diverse ethnic backgrounds in its ranks, these injustices will be confronted, called out, and exterminated.
Regardless of your work, I hope you will “not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.” -MLK