Centring Black people in Conversations About Environmental Racism is Essential

Written by Avery Oliver

When the snowstorm hit Texas in mid-February and my power went out—I wasn’t sure if it would ever come back on. It was a very cold night, the temperatures dropping below freezing, and with no heat or electricity, it only continued to grow colder.

When an hour or two passed and my power roared back on, I was relieved yet still uncertain of how things would go. These were the rolling power outages—where we’d lose power for an hour or two and get it back for thirty minutes. It wasn’t ideal—but we were lucky compared to most. 

As I started doing more research during the small intervals of power I had, I realized that all around my state people were freezing to death. If not that—they were dying by lack of water, food or carbon monoxide poisoning. 

However, certain areas were getting hit harder than others. 

The state was quicker to restore power to some areas and even keep other areas powered to full capacity, while completely ignoring others. The majority of the neglected places were Black and low-income. 

Environmental racism played a role in life and death and, in America especially, Black people are some of the first affected by environmental racism yet we aren’t really acknowledged when it comes to such. 

A definition by Greeaction.org refers to environmental racism as, “the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of colour”. To better break that down, we can see it as areas that are predominately Black, low income, and filled with other marginalized communities being neglected or less cared for by the city in the case of natural disasters in contrast to affluent, white areas. From personal experience, I saw this happening in Texas. 

Areas like Pleasant Grove in Dallas, which is predominately Black, low-income and an area where I’ve been multiple times was hit hard during the snowstorm. Many if not all people living there had lost power and were left in fatal conditions.

In contrast, Highland Park, an extremely affluent area in Dallas that is also predominately white– lost no power at all during the snowstorm. During the small moments I had power, I took to Twitter to see just how this was playing out and as upsetting as this was, it was just another example of how the government failed Black people, people of colour and low-income people during the storm. 

A tweet I saw during the freeze, by @_amanda_jean_, and also seen in an article by Aldianews.com goes into depth about racial disparities in the DFW (Dallas-Fort Worth): 

“4 bricks, a terracotta pot, and some candles will heat a room for anyone who needs it. It’s so wild that this is how we’re living in our minority-majority communities, but Highland Park, Uptown, Preston Hollow, and Farmers Branch never even lost power. #texaspoweroutage”

Another tweet also featured in Aldianews.com, by Twitter user @chulito-jotito points out the racial disparities in Austin stating, “Austin Texas. One side is downtown Austin. The other side east Austin – where the majority of black and brown residents still live in spite of gentrification. I’ll let you guess which side is which”

Lastly, another city that has a heavy black population – Houston Texas, also had its fair share of racial disparities during the snowstorm where historically black areas had lost power. 

These examples above showcase how the governments, and in our case, ERCOT (Electric Reliability Council of Texas) and Texas in general turned its back on low-income, predominately Black areas during a life and death situation. This is how environmental racism played a part in the literal disparities faced by Black and low-income people. Our state either turned its back on poor people and Black people or simply didn’t put in the effort to make many homes and areas safe for Black people and low-income people in case of natural disasters. 

This isn’t the only time we’ve seen environmental racism play a part in harming Black communities during natural disasters. 

When Hurricane Katrina hit, it absolutely devastated New Orleans and for months, even years after, New Orleans was still affected by the hurricane. New Orleans is a predominately Black city, and it was very clear how the aftermath showed just how the United States turned its back on Black people during that time. We clearly saw the same situation with Hurricane Harvey which made landfall in both Texas and New Orleans. Colorlines published an article that looked at just who was affected, and according to the article—many Black and Brown communities suffered the most, and still continue to suffer today from the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey and the government not doing enough to help.

Likewise, though not a hurricane or natural disaster, we can look to Flint to see the water crisis where again, the government is abandoning a predominately Black community while an environmental issue is happening right before their eyes.

Looking at all of this, it’s important that people—especially other Black people realize that we are the silent victims of environmental racism yet aren’t outspoken about it. Conversations of environmental justice don’t have Black voices because many don’t understand how racism and the environment play hand in hand when it comes to the treatment of Black communities. However, when looking at marginalized communities these two terms just simply cannot be separated. Low-income areas, neighbourhoods not prepared for natural disasters and the government turning its back on Black people not just in America but all around the world are examples of the bond Black communities and the environment have in common.

This is why it’s important to, in the future, pay close attention to the natural disasters Black people face, and how governmental ignorance and the environment play a hand. Marginalized people are always the first affected by the swift changes in our land, which is why it’s extremely important to pay attention, listen and help us in times of need. 

Featured image courtesy of Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes have been made to this image.

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