DC is a microcosm of nationwide environmental racism – The GW Hatchet

Not catching your breath is a scary feeling I know all too well. In my early childhood, my family and I lived just off Memorial Drive, a major multi-lane freeway in Decatur, Georgia. The effects were immediate. Shortly after I moved there as a toddler, I gasped every time my mom and dad took me for a walk.

After being short of breath for just a few months, my parents sent me to live with my grandparents in my hometown of Orlando, Florida for health reasons. But the move didn’t fix the damage the air pollution had done, and I was diagnosed with asthma in elementary school and struggled with shortness of breath. I never really knew what happened to me until college, when the professor in my sustainability class explained how environmental injustice affects communities of color. I have learned that I have witnessed environmental racism, where environmental infrastructure, from highways to garbage dumps, disproportionately impacts communities of color and harms their residents with toxic pollution. From Atlanta to DC, environmental racism surrounds us everywhere.

Memorial Drive connects downtown Atlanta to Stone Mountain, Georgia, a memorial depicting Confederate figureheads Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis and was the spiritual home of the revived 20th-century KKK. Many black convicts working in chain gangs—essentially modern slavery—constructed portions of the highway in the 1930s. Memorial Drive’s racist past lives on through its environmental impact, but it’s just one example of how infrastructure can disproportionately impact people of color.

Environmental racism isn’t just an issue in the Deep South. Brentwood, a northeast DC neighborhood, is home to a garbage truck company, recycling center and asphalt plant. And Eckington, just west of Brentwood, is home to the city’s only other asphalt plant. The fumes from these plants can cause everything from headaches and fatigue to throat and eye irritation and skin cancer. Simply breathing fresh and clean air is impossible, and residents in the neighborhood suffer from high rates of lung cancer, stroke and lung disease. Almost half of the land designated for industrial use in DC is in Ward 5, where Brentwood and Eckington are located. To make matters worse, Mayor Muriel Bowser has decided to build a hub for 230 school buses in Eckington, significantly increasing vehicle emissions.

The residents of Brentwood and Eckington, as well as Fort Totten and the area around Benning Road, where two DC Department of Public Works garbage transfer stations are located, are all predominantly black. Everyone deserves to breathe clean air, and people of color shouldn’t be subjected to the brunt of poor environmental choices. Both class and race play a role in environmental racism. There are no garbage transfer stations or asphalt facilities popping up in Dupont Circle or west of Rock Creek Park. Instead, these industrial sites are being located in low-income areas due to the discriminatory belief that the lives of the less fortunate don’t matter. But people are fighting back — Brentwood residents are suing the DC government for failing to conduct an environmental study, notify the local advisory neighborhood commission and comply with zoning regulations before building the 230 school bus depot.

At a college as politically active as GW, it’s easy to embrace the changes we wish to see in our home state or across the country while ignoring the need for change in our own backyard. Environmental racism is not a Democrat or Republican issue—this is a human rights and equality issue. In the city that GW students have called home for years, rates of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer and stroke are five times higher in the Southeast than in the Northwest, compounded by the lack of accessible and affordable health services east of the Anacostia River. The DC government does not serve the people it claims to represent – it actively hurts them, and we cannot turn a blind eye to the wrongdoing that is happening right before our eyes.

GW’s annual Day of Service in August shouldn’t be the only time we serve the broader DC community here, especially when many of us aspire to be future change makers. But what can we as students do to fight environmental racism and pollution? I spoke to Mike Ewall of the Energy Justice Network, a local activist who has led hundreds of environmental justice workshops across the country. Ewall suggested that students email and call officials to lobby for the closure of projects like the environmentally destructive garbage transfer stations, attend public hearings on upcoming projects, and enlist people to get involved.

While DC may only be our temporary home for four years, it’s still our home. We should fight to make it safe for everyone – you never know what a difference you could make in someone’s life and well-being. Environmental racism affects people everywhere, and the fight against it continues. I urge you all to look into the issues here in DC and your hometown and see what you can do to win the battle.

Kamau Louis, a senior major in Political Science, is an opinion writer.


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