Essay: From Atlanta to D.C., environmental racism harms communities of color

Not being able to catch your breath is a scary feeling, one that I know all too well. During the early part of my childhood, my family and I lived right by Memorial Drive, a large multilane highway in Decatur, Georgia. The effects were immediate. Soon after moving there as a toddler, I would wheeze every time my mother and father took me for a walk.

After only a few months of being unable to catch my breath, my parents sent me to live with my grandparents in my hometown of Orlando, Florida for my health. But moving didn’t undo the damage the air pollution had caused, and I was diagnosed with asthma and struggled with shortness of breath when I was in elementary school. I never knew exactly what happened to me until college, when the professor of my sustainability class explained how environmental injustice impacts communities of color. I learned that I experienced environmental racism in which environmental infrastructure, from highways to garbage dumps, disproportionately interferes with communities of color and harms their residents with toxic pollution. From Atlanta to D.C., environmental racism is all around us.

Memorial Drive connects downtown Atlanta to Stone Mountain, Georgia, a monument that depicts Confederate figureheads Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis and was the spiritual home of the revived KKK of the 1900s. Many Black convicts working in chain gangs – essentially modern-day slavery – built parts of the highway in the 1930s. The racist past of Memorial Drive has continued to live on through its impact on the environment, but it is only one example of how infrastructure can disproportionately affect people of color.

Environmental racism is not just an issue in the Deep South. Brentwood, a neighborhood in Northeast D.C., is home to a garbage truck company, a recycling center and an asphalt plant. And Eckington, just west of Brentwood, is home to the only other asphalt plant in the city. The fumes from these plants can lead to everything from headaches and fatigue to throat and eye irritation and skin cancer. The act of simply breathing fresh and clean air is impossible, and neighborhood residents suffer from high rates of lung cancer, stroke and pulmonary disease. Nearly half of the land zoned for industrial use in D.C. is in Ward 5, where Brentwood and Eckington are located. To make matters worse, Mayor Muriel Bowser has decided to build a 230-school bus hub in Eckington, significantly increasing vehicle emissions.

The residents of Brentwood and Eckington – as well as the Fort Totten and the Benning Road area, where two D.C. Department of Public Works’ trash transfer stations are located – are all predominantly Black. Everyone deserves to breathe clean air, and people of color should not face the brunt of poor environmental decision making. Class, as well as race, plays a role in environmental racism. There are no trash transfer stations or asphalt plants popping up in Dupont Circle or west of Rock Creek Park. Instead, these industrial sites are placed in low-income areas because of the discriminatory belief that the lives of those who are less fortunate don’t matter. But people are fighting back – the residents of Brentwood are suing the D.C. government for failing to conduct an environmental study, inform the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission and adhere to zoning regulations before constructing the 230-school bus depot.

At such a politically active college like GW, it is easy to get wrapped in the change we want to see back in our home state or across the country while ignoring the need for change in our own backyard. Environmental racism is not a Democratic or Republican issue – this is an issue of human rights and equality. In the city that GW students call home for years, rates of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer and stroke are five times higher in Southeast than in Northwest, which is only worsened by a lack of accessible and affordable health services east of the Anacostia River. The D.C. government is not serving the people it claims to represent – it’s actively hurting them, and we cannot turn a blind eye to the wrongdoing happening right in front of our faces.

GW’s annual Day of Service in August shouldn’t be the only time we serve the wider D.C. community here, especially when many of us want to be future change makers. But what can we do as students to combat environmental racism and pollution? I talked with Mike Ewall of the Energy Justice Network, a local activist who has led hundreds of workshops about environmental justice around the country. Ewall suggested that students email and call public officials to advocate for closing projects like the environmentally destructive trash transfer stations, attend public hearings about upcoming projects and recruit people to get involved as well.

Even though D.C. may be just our temporary home for four years, it is still our home nonetheless. We should be fighting to make it safe for all – you’ll never know what difference you could make in a person’s life and well-being. Environmental racism affects people everywhere, and the battle against it is ongoing. I challenge you all to look into issues here in D.C. and your hometown and see what you can do to help win the fight.

Kamau Louis, a senior majoring in political science, is an opinions writer. 

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