John Oliver recently delved into the topic of environmental racism in the US and how toxic pollution disproportionately affects people of color.
The host of The Last Week Tonight, spoke about astounding studies that found that black Americans were exposed to 38 percent more polluted air and 75 percent more likely to live in communities that border a factory or plant.
According to a 2021 study funded by the EPA, exposure to air pollution was higher for people of color, regardless of region or income. They found that black Americans making a salary of $200,000 were exposed to more air pollution than white Americans making only $25,000. Oliver said the studies prove “yet again, racism is one of the few things in this country more powerful than money.
He went on to say, “In fact, I believe America’s current top five power rankings go: racism, beef, viral videos of soldiers reuniting with their dogs, DJ Khaled’s PR team, and then money.”
Throughout the next 20 minutes of the show, Oliver went on to talk about the horrifying history and federal policies that have landed America where it is today and what has caused these mass disparities. Federal policies prevented black Americans from obtaining home loans in areas where white people lived, also known as ‘redlining’. The areas where they could live were more often zoned near industrial areas and waste zones.
“Black neighborhoods, in particular, can be targeted with incredible precision and the stakes could not be higher here,” Oliver said. “Pollution is one of the driving factors behind conditions like heart disease, asthma, and even death with black Americans nearly three times as likely to die from exposure to pollution.”
Oliver talked about the West Calumet housing complex in East Chicago, Indiana which is a federally assisted housing community that is built on a former lead smelter. The lead levels are extremely dangerous and reportedly up to 200 times the emergency level.
Source: The Atlantic/Youtube
What’s disgusting is the government hiding the findings. Time and again, regulators knew areas like these are exposed to dangerous toxic chemicals, but failed to inform residents. The government knew about the area around the housing complex decades before they told the community. In 1985, 1998, and 2009, the EPA declared West Calumet a Superfund site and made it a priority for clean up but STILL did not notify residents because the federal law did not require it, to which Oliver said, “Which I truly cannot wrap my head around.”
“The whole point of Superfund is to officially classify something in the government record as very dangerous,” he said. “So it is not great to do that and then not tell the people actually at risk. It’s like putting a ‘Do Not Lean Over the Fence’ sign at a bear exhibit and having it face the bear side. Sure, the information is technically out there, but it’s not really doing much to improve public safety.”
Finally, in 2016, the government notified residents, after 31 years and eight government agency reports. Although this is one of the more extreme examples, it’s far from rare and it is never acceptable, like in Louisiana’s famous Cancer Alley, where cancer risk is 50 times more likely than the national average.
“When you put all of this together – a history of racist zoning, ineffective regulation, and a government that continues to prioritize the profits of industry over the health of people, it is clear we have a massive problem,” Oliver said.
Although Biden has named environmental racism a priority, the administration also said that race would not be a deciding factor in where to focus efforts, to which Oliver commented: “is pretty fucking infuriating.” He continued, “When any solutions to this problem have to be race-blind, despite the fact that the causes of it are so demonstrably not.”
It is clear that pollution is not color blind in the eyes of the government and this is not something that we can stand for. Sign petitions, educate others about these topics, and fight for change! This is unacceptable and not characteristic of a country that we should be living in.
Sign this petition to protect community activists who expose the EPA’s environmental racism and sign this petition to demand the EPA gives justice to poor and minority communities that have been affected.
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