Environmentally Racist Trump?

Trump’s lack of support for environmental policy has been well-documented throughout his presidency. He repealed the Clean Power Plan, announced to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord, and significantly cut the EPA’s budget. While these actions are obvious threats to conservation and the environment, Trump’s lack of prioritization of environmental issues perpetuates systematic environmental racism in the United States.

Journalist Vann R. Newkirk II recently referred to environmental racism as the “new Jim Crow.” Communities of color — especially lower-income communities — have been, and still are, disproportionately affected by environmental issues due to prejudicial tendencies in government policy. In fact, “over half of the US population that lives close to hazardous waste are people of color...black children are twice as likely to suffer from lead poisoning as white children.” Much of this is due to racial discrimination in housing policies from the mid 20th century. From the mid 1930s until the late 1960s, the Federal Housing Administration contained many racist policies that kept people of color from living in suburban areas, such as refusing black families bank loans for housing purposes. When racist language was removed from from the Federal Housing Act in 1968, people of color were finally able to live in suburban neighborhoods--which were previously inhabited solely by white families. Due to fear that racial diversity would devalue their homes, many white families quickly sold their houses at low prices. Thus, the neighborhoods in which people of color were now living had significantly lower property values than the neighborhoods to which the white families moved. When the effects of hazardous waste became known, notably after the “Love Canal Tragedy”, white communities had the resources to resist waste being dumped into their neighborhoods while communities of color did not. Paul Mohai, professor in the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan, writes, “"NIMBYism in more affluent, white communities...resulted in industry taking the 'path of least resistance' and targeting communities with fewer resources and political clout...These communities are where the poor and people of color live."

The continuing crisis in Flint, Michigan is an example of environmental racism in recent political news. The population of Flint, Michigan is 57% black. In his 274 pages of emails about the issue, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder does not discuss race, and has denied that the issue “happened because of the nature of the community here.” In their statement about the issue, the NAACP claimed that more would have been done if “nearly 40 percent of Flint residents were not living below the poverty line.” And this is not an isolated issue. The crisis in Flint is simply an example of the restricted access that African-American communities have to water. Studies have found that, “majority-African-American communities residents’ median water bill is 20 percent higher for the same amount of water than residents pay in predominantly white communities.”

This is not just a domestic issue. While the American public was focused on Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, another devastating issue was occurring in South Asia. At least 1,200 people have died in Bangladesh, India, and Nepal due to the intense monsoons that are affecting the area. While heavy monsoons are expected in this area, the floods from this past year ar more intense and threatening than they have been in previous years. Scientists attributed this to global warming. However, Bangladesh has a relatively small carbon footprint. In fact, carbon dioxide emissions are 0.3 metric tons per person, in comparison with 19.34 per person in the United States. While developed countries are more responsible for climate change, developing countries will always be more vulnerable.

Now, Trump is substantially cutting the EPA budget and conclusively deprioritizing these issues. In fact, the new plan would completely eliminate the environmental justice wing of the EPA, which specifically works to reduce the hazards of environmental racism. However, the Trump administration sees this issue very differently.  In fact, Liz Bowman, a spokesperson for the EPA, has stated that Trump’s new plan, “prioritizes federal funding for work in infrastructure, air and water quality, and ensuring the safety of chemicals in the marketplace.” In a broad sense, this could vaguely address the issue of environmental racism. For example, ensuring drinkable water for a wider range of communities could potentially aid in solving the ongoing issue in Flint, Michigan. Without directly addressing these problems, it is unlikely that they can ever truly be remedied. Trump’s vague promise to bring clean drinking water and safety from hazardous chemicals addresses this longstanding problem in an extremely naive fashion. The establishment of an environmental justice department was a way to ensure that the issue of race and its relation to environmental vulnerability is directly addressed. Without it, the federal government is symbolically losing its accountability for these issues, which--as previously explained--were heavily contributed to by its own housing administration.

The connection between the shortcomings of environmental policy and environmental racism is clear. Sierra Club representative John Coequyt even stated that “to cut the Environmental Justice program at EPA is just racist. I can't imagine it's an office that runs up much cost. I can't describe it in any other terms than a move to leave those communities behind. I can't imagine what the justification would be, other than racism.” In order to fully achieve social justice, communities of color need environmental justice, or the, “fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies,” more than ever. Due to Trump’s affluent background, he likely never had to face the increased exposure to hazardous waste, or the higher likelihood of living near landfills. Trump’s bias against lower-income communities of color even spreads to other countries. Not only is he not taking action against many ecological issues in the United States, but his lack of cooperation in the Paris Climate Accord indicates that he is not willing to solve this issue on an international level.