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NYU Stern Solidarity Week Event – What is Environmental Racism?

By William O’Leary

Cancer Alley, Louisiana. The Flint water crisis. The Exide Technologies plant in Los Angeles. Chevron’s destruction of the Ecuadorian Amazon and subsequent exploitation of the global economic and legal system to avoid justice. These are just a few of the notable examples of environmental racism inflicted on low-income Black, brown, and indigenous communities by businesses and governments. On Tuesday, April 6th, NYU Stern’s Social Impact and Sustainability Association (SISA) and the Association of Hispanic and Black Business Students (AHBBS) co-hosted an event titled, “What is Environmental Racism?”, where NYU Liberal Studies professor Leo Douglas noted that we will have achieved environmental justice only when “everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards, and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.” The next generation of business leaders has an opportunity to chart a different course by choosing not to make excuses and recognizing environmental racism in business.

Professor Douglas led an engaging discussion that defined environmental racism while expertly demonstrating it is caused by deeply rooted systemic issues in America and abroad. To open his remarks, Professor Douglas disputed the notion that environmentalism and environmental justice are tree-hugging causes with little impact on human life. He then proceeded to play a clip from the opening of Ava Duvernay’s outstanding documentary, “13th.” The documentary traces the connection between a loophole written into the 13th amendment, which abolished slavery and the oppression of Black people that continued after the end of the American civil war up to the present day. The message was clear – the economic establishment of the late 19th century depended on racist oppression in one form or another, just as much of the business world does to this day through forces such as environmental racism. 

To open his remarks, Professor Douglas disputed the notion that environmentalism and environmental justice are tree-hugging causes with little impact on human life. He then proceeded to play a clip from the opening of Ava Duvernay’s outstanding documentary, 13th. The documentary traces the connection between a loophole written into the 13th amendment, which abolished slavery and the oppression of Black people that continued after the end of the American civil war up to the present day. The message was clear – the economic establishment of the late 19th century depended on racist oppression in one form or another, just as much of the business world does to this day through forces such as environmental racism.

Professor Douglas revealed that air, water, and soil pollution is a more prominent global cause of death than road accidents, HIV/AIDS, and tobacco, which put to bed any argument of environmental sustainability as a utopian, distant future imperative. He noted that zip codes are the best predictors of heart and respiratory illnesses and that, not coincidentally, 70% of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal power plant. Extractive industries (fossil fuels, natural resource mining) and governments that permit corporations to prioritize profits over human life have chosen to inflict this harm on communities of color because it is politically and financially expedient. Very few companies that depend on our finite supply of natural resources have substantially pushed back against decades of deliberate environmental racism by their business partners.

Professor Douglas also detailed the legal threats and physical violence that environmental justice advocates, often low-income Black, brown, and indigenous people, face in the United States and abroad from corporations, police, and governments. These activists, such as Bertha Caceres of Honduras, have been killed for their advocacy.

What lessons can those who hope to lead businesses take from Professor Douglas’s presentation?

First, they can enter the workforce with an awareness of the practice of environmental racism to be better prepared to end it. Future business leaders should know that where companies choose to make their messes is not an accident. Consider the Dakota Access Pipeline. In response to the outcry from the Standing Rock Sioux of South Dakota over the harmful impacts of the proposed pipeline, lawmakers and industry have collaborated to pass legislation that effectively criminalizes and stigmatizes protest. It’s difficult to imagine such a situation ever taking hold in, say, the Hamptons or Cape Cod, where mostly white property owners carry the torch for NIMBYism by flexing their political and economic might to derail even clean energy sources that would taint picturesque beach views.

Second, those who live near the byproducts of dirty and wasteful businesses rarely do so by choice. The choices are typically made by companies looking to get rid of thorny problems by exporting them to communities with little wealth or political power. Shipping dirty industries to economically distressed communities is not a lifeline for the unemployed or underemployed; it is predation.

Third, while there may be no universal test for whether actions meet the definition of environmental racism, business leaders need to ask the essential question, “who might be harmed by this practice or decision?” Even good intentions (“this will create jobs!”) can lead to environmentally racist outcomes (“those jobs won’t last forever and will pollute a marginalized community’s supply of potable water”). A focus on just outcomes rather than best intentions will inevitably lead to diminished harm from environmental racism.

Photo credit: https://theecologist.org/sites/default/files/styles/inline_l/public/2020-05/16014096015_e493b0d7f0_5k.jpg?itok=KbyRW_sY

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