The levels and depths of environmental racism run deep. To better understand this, Associated Students (AS) at California State University, Monterey Bay (CSUMB) hosted a virtual discussion with esteemed writer, editor and medical ethicist Harriet Washington on Feb. 26. The discussion centered around Washington’s research and area of expertise in environmental racism and injustice.
AS Senators Nayeli Fernandez and Olivia Equinoa began the event with an in-depth land acknowledgement, recognizing the land that CSUMB sits on as Ohlone and Rumsen land. The event was efficiently broken down into a 40-minute moderated discussion with 20 minutes allotted for questions and answers for Washington.
Washington is a published researcher who has won awards for her books. Her most recent publication is called “A Terrible Thing to Waste: Environmental Racism and Its Assault on the American Mind.”
Washington said writing a book about “exploring the natural world” was a really important part of her life.
Washington noted inspiration for writing the book stemmed from her childhood, growing up exploring the fields and farms around her. An interest in environmental toxicology was sparked during Washington’s childhood living on an army base, watching planes fly overhead that released dangerous chemicals. After being rushed inside from her mother looking to protect the children from unknown exposure, Washington began her investigation, receiving vague answers of pesticides. Skeptical of the answers, Washington was not convinced the truth was being represented.
“I’m never content with vague assurances that something is not a problem,” Washington said.
Discussing her time spent running a poison control center, Washington stated the center normally dealt with heavy and industrial metals, such as lead, but in different ways than previously encountered. In the 1980s, the center was focused on the physical consequences of exposure.
Eventually, she realized that the subtle cognitive changes ended up being profound.
“Equally tragic is the cognitive cost of these exposures,” Washington said. “I felt that wasn’t getting enough attention.”
Washington mentioned these exposures to the general public were viewed as a socioeconomic problem. However, new data confirmed the issues stem not from a socioeconomic disparity, but from a racial disparity.
“Race trumps socioeconomics as the chief risk factor,” Washington said.
She said another aspect of environmental racism is the hereditarian beliefs, including highly credentialed scientists who believe that “intelligence is color coded… intelligence is genetically transmitted and people of color transmit lower levels of intelligence to their children.” Washington described this as “a theory that won’t die.”
Using new data, Washington uncovered these beliefs and showed how deeply flawed they are.
When asked how to start conversations around people who are uncomfortable with this subject, Washington asked “discomfort on who’s part?” People who experience environmental racism effects do not have the luxury to feel discomfort on the subject. That is their daily reality. Callous exposure to harmful chemicals predominantly affects communities of color.
“We need to focus upon the health and the great risk suffered by people, and not worry so much about the sensibilities of people who don’t like to be accused of racial disparities,” Washington said. “I’m not a great fan of assuaging the feelings of people who are spared or perpetrators at the expense of people being harmed.”
Discussing Native American communities, Washington was shocked to discover minimal data on the effects they suffer from. Native Americans are the least likely to have access to basic services and the most likely to be exposed to toxic chemicals.
“It’s a double whammy,” Washington said. “They’re not only the group most likely to be assaulted by environmental contaminants, they’re the group least likely to have it dutifully noted and the data collected and have a real standing to draw attention to it.”
Mentioning some Native communities have voluntarily chosen nuclear plants on their land, Washington was concerned with the lack of data and falsehood surrounding the plants, preventing cases against the industry and its practices.
Washington also discussed the case of Flint, Michigan, stating America has a lead poisoning problem. In Flint, she said this problem was exacerbated by a “confluence of government wrongdoing,” which includes intentionally exposing people to known heavy metals, as well as deflecting the blame onto vulnerable individuals. Considering the water in Flint is contaminating lower and middle class families, the toxic water problems plaguing the community highlight racial – not economic – disparities.
“Blaming the victim is very common,” Washington said. “When people talk about Flint, we need to talk about America.”
In her book, Washington offers advice on how individuals can address these issues within their communities. Though there are limits to what people can do, the first place to start is in one’s own home. Washington noted it’s necessary to learn what contaminants affect a person’s local area, such as giardia. Once they’ve learned, selecting a proper water filter can eliminate regional contaminants.
Air pollution causes respiratory problems, cancer and cognitive challenges over time. Washington advised people how to take action through community organizing.
“I tell people how to leverage the laws,” Washington said. “You can put some pressure on them.”
Especially true for renters fighting against landlords and their lack of action to environmental toxicity, leveraging the laws is one way to get a landlord to take action.
Washington emphasized the importance of individuals educating themselves and their communities. People need to overcome their aversion to science in order to learn how to protect their communities – though it is important to note science is imperfect.
“Science and scientists are not objective,” Washington said. “Scientists are people, people have biases.”
The industries that have polluted the world are polluting science through lobbying and the muddling of scientific fact. Washington urged people to put pressure on their lawmakers. Washington said people seeking to get involved with these issues should join organizations that have already been doing this work. Recognizing the need to put people in power who acknowledge environmental racism, Washington urged to skip being polite and focus on making a difference.
“Don’t reinvent the wheel,” Washington said. “Connect with existing organizations. The chances of success are bigger if you partner with people who’ve met before.”
The Q&A portion of the event was full of questions from participants, many highlighting the environmental injustice in their own communities. One way to rectify is community involvement. Information needs to be made accessible for the average individual.
Washington recommended people seek out information about Robert Bullard, who she described as a “catalyst for environmental racism.”
With whatever means one has, Washington believes it’s everyone’s civic responsibility to care about environmental racism and the impact it has on communities of color. Progress can be taken in many forms, but whichever form one chooses, the important thing is to take action.