What the West Virginia Elk River spill says about the intersection of race, poverty, privilege, and oppression

The alternate headline for this post was, “Environmentalism: The long-view on dismantling oppression.”

When I first launched The Sin City Siren seven years ago, one of the issues I wrote about often was environmentalism. After a while I got tired of defending the importance of talking about environmental concerns on a feminist site: Why do you keep writing about waste streams, environmental impacts of businesses, and sustainability on a feminist politics blog? Sigh.

Sure, the de rigueur in the feminist community is reproductive rights and occasionally some hand-wringing about the wage gap. The environment is typically seen as one of those miscellaneous issues that we’ll get around to when we’ve made sure that abortion on demand is safe and legal for all and that everybody is finally earning dollars-to-dollars. Sure, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is alarming. Oh, people can light their tap water on fire in certain parts of the country? Someone should really get on that.

Here’s the thing about segregating causes within the progressive movement, it is divisive, it is inefficient, and in some cases it’s petty. How many times have I and other feminists gripe that the mainstream progressive movement is tone-deaf on feminist issues or continually telling us to sit tight while they shore up their issues before they can get to equality for women? Unfortunately, we feminists do this, too, especially when it comes to the environment.

Let me make the case for a broader application of intersectionality. Let’s look at the long-view on progressive issues, their inter-relatedness, and how serious environmental concerns may just be the lynchpin.

First, let’s look at what we already know. People of color are disproportionately more likely to live in poverty, be uninsured, have a higher rate of incarceration, and face a higher wage gap and income gap than whites. Let’s drill down into that, shall we:

  • Born poor: Children of color are four times more likely to be born in poverty and a majority of them will stay poor for their lifetimes. While 21.8 percent of all American children live in poverty, 37.9 percent of black children live in poverty and 33.8 percent of Hispanic children live in poverty (compared to 12.3 percent white kids).
  • Graduation rates: Asian-American and white students are still more likely to earn a high school diploma than Hispanics or blacks. High school drop-outs will earn $200,000 less over a lifetime and almost a million dollars less than a college graduate. About 2,000 high schools across the country are so-called “drop out factories,” which produce half of all drop-outs. One in six kids attend a drop-out factory but one in three minority students attend a drop-out factory, compared with only eight percent of whites. If we cut the drop-out rate in half, it could benefit the economy by as much as $90 billion, according to some estimates. Meanwhile, a higher percentage of high school drop-outs live in poverty (31 percent), compared to those with high school diplomas (24 percent). (Nevada has been identified as having a significant number of drop-out factories and has the third-lowest high school graduation rate of 62.7 percent.)
  • Teen pregnancy: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 50 percent of all teen mothers earn a high school diploma by age 22. Black and Hispanic youth accounted for 57 percent of teen births in 2011. Teen pregnancy accounted for almost $11 billion in costs to taxpayers in 2008, “for increased health care and foster care, increased incarceration rates among children of teen parents, and lost tax revenue because of lower educational attainment and income among teen mothers.” (Nevada has the fourth highest teen pregnancy rate.)
  • Unemployed and underpaid: For the past 50 years, black unemployment rates have been twice as high as whites. People of color are more likely to work at low-wage jobs (42 percent). In addition, they hold a disproportionately high amount of low-paying jobs in the restaurant sector (62 percent of dishwashers, for instance). Raising the minimum wage to $10.10 would lift 3.5 million people of color out of poverty. (The median wage for fast-food workers in Las Vegas, for instance, is $9.67.)
  • Incarceration: Blacks account for almost half of all incarcerated people, according to the NAACP. Blacks are incarcerated at a rate six times that of whites. Even though blacks and Hispanics are only a quarter of the US population, they accounted for 58 percent of all prisoners in 2008.

It’s pretty clear, by the numbers, that being a person of color in America is not easy. People of color are more likely to be poor, unemployed, have a lower level of education, higher rate of teen pregnancy, and a shockingly high rate of incarceration. So, what does this have to do with the environment? Plenty.

Consider the crisis unfolding in West Virginia right now where an estimated 300,000 residents are affected by a chemical spill of industrial pollutants from coal plants that has contaminated Elk River water. The situation is dangerous and people are in such a panic that Walmart brought in guards to protect recent shipments of bottled water. Worst of all, nobody knows when the water will be safe again, since it was distributed through a water-management network reaching 1,500 miles in the area before the contamination was discovered. Indeed, nobody even knows when the leak of approximately 5,000 gallons of 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol (MCHM), which is used to wash coal of impurities, started. And it’s possible the chemical has already leached into the soil.

As it turns out, West Virginia was ranked the third poorest state in America in 2012 with a 7.3 percent unemployment rate and almost 20 percent of residents living below the poverty line. It has since improved to a 6 percent unemployment rate. (For comparison, Nevada’s unemployment rate is 9 percent, with a record high of 14 percent in October 2010.) In fact, West Virginia has consistently ranked as one of the poorest states — particularly for children — for more than 50 years and chronically lags behind in education, employment, and income.

So it is not surprising at all to find out that of the nine counties surrounding Charleston that are most effected by the Elk River chemical spill four — Lincoln, Cabell, Clay, and Roane — have a poverty rate greater than 30 percent and all nine counties have a poverty rate of at least 20 percent or higher. (For comparison, Nevada’s poverty rate in 2012 was 16 percent, one point above the national average, which means Nevada has the 18th highest rate in the country.)

In fact, environmental disasters as well as the zoning of land adjacent to environmentally questionable areas — like factories, coal plants, and nuclear testing facilities — is one of the oldest tricks in the book. Who wants to live next to the factory that causes higher rates of asthma? Nobody. So who lives there? The people who can’t afford to live anywhere else.

This problem was chronicled effectively in Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities. While the book might seem dated now — discussing some of the most economically depressed and simultaneously environmentally disgusting communities in America in the 1990s — it is sadly relevant because the oldest tricks are still the best tricks when it comes to screwing the poor (and the earth) for the sake of a buck. There’s a particularly vivid chapter about East St. Louis, in which I lived for a time, where Kozol explains how the kids don’t play in the grass because it leaves chemical pigments on the skin and how the high school faucets poured brown feces-laden water in the bathrooms, which meant most kids just avoided going to the bathroom — for the entire day. Meanwhile, the factories most responsible for the environmental spills and poor environmental conditions could escape culpability by the local government because they were technically zoned in “municipalities” that essentially housed only the factory.

Ah, zoning, that boring old standard of local governments across the land. As it turns out, zoning is one of the most pivotal issues for addressing the inequalities of economic, environmental, and educational injustices. There is a critical nexus of issues that come together when we look at the geography of poverty. Cheap housing tends to be clustered in geographically undesirable places — under freeways, next to factories, along hazardous waste shipment routes, and more. This results in poor people getting the brunt of the effects of bad environmental policy. Let’s face it, white people with any access to even modest amounts of money will be able to afford to live in neighborhoods with less direct impacts of environmental problems.

This is a very old trick, indeed. Here in Southern Nevada, just go look up the history of Henderson’s World War II-era Basic Magnesium, Inc. (BMI) plant and surrounding factories. The foul smells and unlined cooling ponds that allowed toxic chemicals to leach into the soil and ground water were a chronic problem for the then-factory town and some of the original plant land is still in the process of contamination clean-up some 70+ years later. For a long time, however, the pollution spewing factories were not part of the city of Henderson, and therefore not subject to any accountability to those who were most effected. For that matter, let’s go talk to the Navajo Nation about efforts to clean up uranium pollution stemming from mining during World War II in the four corners states.

The fact is we’re going to continue to see these kinds of environmental disasters and high levels of chronic diseases effecting our nation’s poorest populations. Look at the issue of access to clean water. No, I’m not talking about in foreign countries. I’m talking about right here in America. While as a whole most Americans have access to clean and safe water, 13 percent of Native Americans lack access to clean water.

As we can see from the data, the majority of poor people are not white. And the majority of poor people are disproportionately effected by the whims of bad zoning and lack of safety and environmental standards. This plays into macro-level problems for those in poverty in America. The poorest among us will not only have the greatest disadvantages to escaping poverty (among many other things), but they will have the worst odds when it comes to the environmental lottery, too.

Caring about the environment isn’t just some kind of vanity project or a middle-class hobby. This isn’t about whether or not your recycling gets curbside pick-up, although that is nice. This is about the most fundamental of needs — access to safe water and safe (pollution-free) housing and schools. Our worst environmental problems are effecting real people every day. When we collectively turn our backs on this issue, we reveal the worst kind of socio-economic privilege. We should be morally outraged that people can light their tap water on fire. The reality that people are not outraged is part of the problem.

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One thought on “What the West Virginia Elk River spill says about the intersection of race, poverty, privilege, and oppression

  1. Pingback: Are certain cities just doomed? | The Sin City Siren

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