Richard Raber
Richard Raber

People of colour carry the burden of environmental racism in a post-racial era

Videos depicting the senseless murders of unarmed people of colour have given birth to a new social movement, #BlackLivesMatter, while bringing to light a reality incomprehensible to white communities: the lives of people of colour have systemically been deemed disposable.

To collectively realise the inherent value of black life we must think locally and globally, symbolically and institutionally. One realm to address these concerns in is that of environmental racism.

Consider that, across the globe, predatory capitalism has held the lives of people of colour with little value as it externalises excesses, often resulting in long-term illness, cultural displacement or death. Further, consider how increasingly visible executions by the state are directly correlated to perceived disposability of people of colour marked by silent, structural predations. The right to a life of dignity is a modest demand exceeding relative safety vis-à-vis state forces; it also embraces the urgent quest for environmental justice.

A call for environmental justice should not be equated with a call for policies that formally affect all the same way, or are neutral. Insofar as (environmental) racism is concerned, neutrality may not be as objective as we would like to believe; Frantz Fanon’s statement that for the marginalised “…objectivity is always directed against him”holds true both domestically and transnationally. Fanon’s insight is key towards understanding a problem in the liberal state; we are not all treated the same and even if we were, without the necessary correctives, sameness would not result in meaningful equity. As I have written about previously, neutral positions/policies neglect the fact that different communities have had distinctive relationships to the state, but this extends also to climactic devastation. Conceptually the physical loss of a community’s land best exemplifies this; while we all (consciously or not) interact with climate change or environmental degradation, not every community has had the same relationship to these issues.

Understanding that historical and climactic legacies persist serves to refute postracialism  or the idea that we have moved beyond the problem of race. For instance, access to basic tenets of dignified life such as clean air to breathe and water to drink is not universal (even in the Global North). Largely, the faces encountering the most hazardous effects of environmental exploitation are those of colour; Fanon’s call indeed rings true today. 

The centre of the world’s economy, New York City, can be characterised as a fountain of globalised wealth; a constant stream of finance maintains while workers and elite ebb and flow. The former come in search of a modest middle-class life while the latter has transformed the city into the rich’s playground (often based on the exploitation of people of colour) and a place to foment power, an embodiment of the excesses of modern capitalism. Meanwhile working-class people are faced with the worst, often toxic effects of modern urban life; areas in the working class, largely Latin American and black South Bronx, have some of the nation’s highest rates of respiratory illness. Unsurprisingly, toxic industries often find their home in this borough. The persistence of these communities is a form of resistance as they are viewed as the problem gentrification seeks to solve.

In the Canadian context, some of the world’s dirtiest oil is extracted from the tar sands in Alberta and in the 2013-14 fiscal year this generated revenue of $5.6-billion. While the tar sands are politically regressive as well as inevitably environmentally dangerous, the effects of their exploitation are more direct to certain communities. Studies demonstrate correlations between the rise of the tar sands with increased rates of cancer and other health complications in local indigenous communities. Moreover, the increase in toxins found in local wildlife has forced nearby indigenous communities towards purchasing more of their food. The tar sands have created both adverse health effects for local communities as well as an attack on indigenous ways of life.

Environmental exploitation often melds with exploitation of its labourers; in South Africa mining companies have been found to have inadequately protected miners. Facing the victory of a class-action suit against the mining industry, capital has responded by appealing; undoubtedly the final ruling will be too late for many of the silicosis-infected miners. An industry foundational to the development of the colonial and apartheid state has continued to wrong its largely black labour force.

Globally, people of colour lead resistance to environmental exploitation and associated abuses as leadership faces the greatest consequences. In South Africa this is most evinced by the Marikana Massacre, green-blanket cladded Mgcineni “Mambush” Noki has come to embody an ethos of resistance both within South Africa as well as internationally. More recently, the assassination of Amadiba Crisis Committee chairmanSikhosiphi “Bazooka” Rhadebedemonstrates the frontline interaction communities of colour have with environmental exploitation. Such situations demand a livedresistance rather than a passive or weekend activism. 

Indigenous peoples continue to be at the forefront for environmental justice while facing often fatal consequences, mainstream (normatively white) society is largely ignorant of such issues. This is a function of postracialism. If key loci of exploitation are not in modern (sub)urban spaces of consumption the abuse is invisible or negligible.  Spaces of exploitation are externalised, seemingly destined for transformation by capitalism; indigenous people globally are perceived to stand outside modernity. Indigenous people are framed as a vestige of the past to be absorbed into the universality of the modern, urban, capitalist experience. Indigenous communities are often conceptualised as the gatekeepers to the pre-modern, the traditional; paradoxically it is impossible to extricate communities from modernity when they are facing invasions of deforestation, mining, dams and the like. This is one reason why movements such as Idle No More are so powerful and important, by creating a new public in spaces of consumption these misconceptions are inherently challenged and thus threaten the capitalist order.

As noted previously, to attempt to intellectually extricate one’s self from a system of domination is a position of (white) privilege; to remove or isolate others from global modernity is a further act of privilege and hubris. Moreover, many of the worst environmental abuses take place in spaces previously deemed of little or no value. In the settler-state indigenous populations have historically been relegated to these spaces as they were deemed of little utility. As the earth is increasingly depleted and technology progresses, the worst of Lockean thought persists, dictating another round of dispossession. Inevitably indigenous sovereignty and decolonisation efforts as well opposition to systems of oppression writ large are foundational to meaningful environmental justice movements.

Moving forward it is incumbent on white society to recognise that like in other realms, environmentally, we have benefited (for instance in terms of access to affordable and disposable consumer goods) from both the exclusion of people of colour and their forceful absorption of the full costs of capitalism. White supremacy is largely predicated on dispossession, meaning that capital’s utilisation of communities of colour as both proverbial and actual dumping grounds is our problem too.

We must be vigilant in preventing environmentalism from being co-opted as an argument against uplift in the non-industrialised world. This is evidenced in attempts to justify environmental inaction by finger-pointing nations such as India and China as the real or sole culprits of climate change; their citizens have a right to an improved standard of life too. Toxic industrialisation is a function of the rules of modernisation, thus we need to change the global game.

Assuming that most whites would like to see a world where all (beginning with the excluded, mostly people of colour) are able to live healthy lives of safety and dignity, we must operate with an increased awareness to a different set of lived experiences, an openness to new ideas/voices as well as a shift away from a value system largely set in consumption and individuation.

Working towards a global community where existing power does not solely set the norms is vital in creating sustainable futures for everyone. This endeavour requires privileging the (racialised) poor inevitably hit harshest by environmental degradation and climate change; a situation created by the fusion of the dictates of both capitalism and white supremacy. Moreover, perhaps we need to move away from a model of simply extending or welcoming others into the proverbial fold. Conceptually this is a fictitious path for justice as it is contingent on continued exclusion. This narrative also lends itself to ethnocentrism embodied in the aforementioned mythologising and thus politically sidestepping of indigenous peoples.

Our new political project demands careful consideration of policies involving redistribution, reparations as well as the challenging of dominant, institutionalised (often liberal) ideologies. While some of these ideas may come across (and be grieved by some) as losses, they are not. Simply, these concepts are the sharing of resources white, western society was not entitled to take in the first place. Justice and healing (including for white society) require action. Abusing our environment has led (and will lead) to horrific consequences for some, but ultimately will bring pain, hurt and devastation to all. Let’s use this opportunity to collectively craft a new political imagination and paradigm birthed in humility, responsibility, respect and community.

Article originally appeared in Daily Maverick.

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    • Louw Root

      What a load of crack Peter, a little bit of green theory with some critical race theory, combined with a little bit of structuralist theory, rolled in a lot of identity politics and this is what you shit out. Capitalism and its vices transcends color and race, and it cannot be attributed to some collectivist race label.

    • MICHAEL JONES

      White this and white that, this ANC government has just changed their whites masters for Chinese and Indian masters and if anyone thinks the whites were bad just wait and see, the whites stayed and built this country the chinese and indians are taking and leaving, invest maybe for one dam at 2 billion rand which sounds and looks very nice but at the back taking out 1 trillion’s worth of minerals and resources.

    • Robert

      One of South Africa’s biggest environmental problems is that of badly managed waste water treatment plants (WWTPs), resulting in systematic pollution of precious fresh water resources. These WWTPs are badly managed because of cadre deployment in our local governments: the placement of unqualified people into positions requiring technical expertise.