Environmental racism is not a new issue in recreational spaces, Richard McKinley Mizelle Jr., a history professor at the University of Houston, said.
“Talking to my parents, they both grew up during segregation and tell stories about how they had to swim in waters with sharks and water moccasins because they did not have access to pools, and, you know, people die because of that environmental racism,” Mizelle said.
The Schiller Institute collaborated with BC’s Forum on Racial Justice in America to host an environmental racism panel on Feb. 23 over Zoom. Mizelle and two other panelists spoke about the convergence of environmental and racial issues.
Mizelle said his early research related to environmental racism. His first book, Backwater Blues: The Mississippi Flood of 1927 in the African American Imagination, depicted how an environmental disaster disproportionately affected African Americans.
“Part of the argument of that book is that African Americans suffered from a double environmental burden—essentially that it was not only the floodwaters that created the harm for African Americans, but in the immediate aftermath, many African Americans still dealt with the environment of racism and inequality,” Mizelle said.
Mizelle then talked about his research on lead poisoning and its connections to the Civil Rights Movement. He explained how organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Black Panther Party demanded the dangers of lead poisoning be addressed.
Kimberly Jones, an environmental engineer and a professor at Howard University, discussed the global water crisis in terms of water insecurity and contamination, using Flint, Mich. as an example.
“I think there were about 17 months between when the residents started complaining about, you know, the water smells funny, it looks funny, the children have rashes, it’s causing adverse health effects, and when they finally said ‘okay we have to do something for this community,’” Jones said.
Jones said environmental progress must stem from scientists as well as the members of any impacted community.
“We have to make sure these decisions are made with scientific integrity, make sure the science is backing them, but we can’t do our work without the strong partnership of stakeholders, and that’s those in the community,” Jones said.
Adin Henderson, co-president of the Black Student Forum and MCAS ’21, reflected on his experience interning in an environmental non-profit and working as an undergraduate research fellow. He said these experiences impacted his perception of environmental racism.
“I started to question whether climate information is catered to those who actually need it and are going to be hit the hardest by climate change, or if it’s catered to those who are just interested in maintaining the status quo as long as possible, and this led to my understanding of environmental racism,” Henderson said.
Henderson also reflected on the steps that should be taken and how people can help. With issues of environmental and racial justice, smaller steps are more attainable, he said.
“A lot of the time we call for these overarching changes, yet we haven’t addressed the small things that will set the foundation for that change to stick,” Henderson said. “And so in terms of like calling for divestment or calling for racial justice, there are maybe three to five steps you take in between where you call for smaller-scale change.”
Featured Image by Nicole Vagra / For the Heights