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Environmental and infrastructural racism is a human rights issues

Efran Menny explicates the need for governmental (and communal) solidarity in the realm of public works.

A man walks through the Broadway East neighborhood in Baltimore, Maryland in October 2020. (Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)

For many Houstonians, November 27, 2022, was a normal day. As on typical Sundays, many went to religious services, some engaged in quality family time, and many rejuvenated peacefully from a strenuous work week. While the city enjoyed its contentment, a health crisis was forming.

According to local media, a disruption in power at Houston’s East Water Purification Plant caused the water pressure to dip below regulatory standards. After speaking with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for several hours throughout the day, the city issued a boil notice at 6:30pm.

For hours, many Houstonians continued their normal lives. Unfortunately, many learned about the notice through social media and questioned why officials didn’t use the city-wide alert system to announce the decision. (When the notice was lifted, Houstonians did receive a notice using that technology.)

Overall, the boil water advisory impacted nearly 2.2 million residents and caused immense ripple effects, including business closings, classes at local schools being canceled for two days, and residents scrambling to find alternative water sources.

This was but a local example of a much larger environmental disaster, microcosms of which many communities can expect to experience in the coming months and years. Because the federal government has a nearly 3 trillion dollar infrastructure repair bill on the books, the final products of which are yet to be seen, the frequency of infrastructure-related mishaps is sure to increase.

Given American leaders’ longstanding mistreatment and manipulation of its Black population, it’s no surprise that these shameful incidents are often borne of government corruption, neglect, and social engineering rooted in White Supremacy. The result of these actions are alarming environmental injustices for Black communities.

One way infrastructure and injustice intersect is the modern-day highway system. After World War II, the American economy saw an unprecedented jump in productivity. Consumerism and commercialism dominated the 1940s and 50s, usually at the hands of White Americans in a still-segregated country. At the same time, the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 underwrote the nation’s interstate highway system; federal, state, and local governments developed plans to accommodate this surge in the White economy. In the process of expanding the freeway system, many flourishing Black communities were uprooted and destroyed.

As integration and access to equal housing opportunities began to flower, urban planners placed freeways as dividing lines to maintain segregation and racial zoning ordinances. These major transportation shifts with the construction of the highway system had detrimental long-term impacts. For one, close proximity to highways has placed Black residents closer to pollution and hazardous air which creates significant health complications.

Fast-forward to 2022, and we saw a public health emergency make global headlines in Jackson, Mississippi—one of the Blackest cities in the country. After torrential flooding this summer, decades of systemic racism designed to disenfranchise Black residents, and a series of treatment and infrastructure maintenance issues, a major water crisis impacted the state’s capital city.

Because of the tainted water, many of the residents relied on water distribution or followed city-wide boil water notices for hygiene, drinking, and cooking. After working with the EPA and other departments to treat the water, in late October the federal agency declared it was safe to drink. In addition, the EPA announced an investigation into whether there was racial discrimination in the use of federal funds received by Mississippi for water treatment repairs in Jackson.

History is full of these infrastructure-related and environmental scandals against Black people, domestically and abroad. We could examine the Flint water crisis in Michigan, “Cancer Alley” in Louisiana, or the countless waste concerns plaguing Africa due to Western capitalism. For Black people, it’s only a matter of time before the gavel of environmental crisis, concern, or contamination drops.

For centuries, the African diaspora has been forced into environments that contribute negatively and even fatally to their health. Occasionally, there is compensation for the harm, but by and large, our lives are ignored. On the other hand, because of the rise of capitalism and its spread globally, the unfettered damage to the climate, communities, and quality of life has made merely existing insufferable in many regions. How can we take back control of our communities and demand accountability for longstanding abuse, cover-up, and neglect?

The interdependence of the seven themes of Catholic social teaching can have a significant impact on our advocacy. Far from being distinctly separated principles, they all summarize an essential call to action rooted in love of neighbor and our common Creator.

When we stand in solidarity, we unite with all oppressed and exploited communities suffering from the disasters of environmental injustice, which is an affront to the common good. By engaging in this type of life-giving work, we increase the public's awareness that these populations have immeasurable worth, and our commitment to being better stewards of creation. With this commitment to environmental responsibility, we affirm that communities deserve basic access to sanitary and safe environments.

Moreover, as Catholics we understand that when we fight for eco-justice, the center of the advocacy is care for our common home. In our spiritual perspective, the degradation of the planet has a spiritual element. Because of the fall, we know that creation has been subjected to futility and decay. Not only did original sin have an interpersonal dimension, but the original ancestors’ disobedience also shifted the function of the earth from what God intended it to be. As with our natural bodies that will be resurrected and glorified, God will redeem the earth from its current state of wayward operation.

Until then, Catholics and all people of goodwill should make it a priority to care for, protect, and love our planet by ensuring proper stewardship. Regardless of faith, nationality, or ethnicity, our global aim should be preservation of the earth, which means rising up against corporations that levy unprecedented harm and holding governments accountable for their lack of commitment. When we come together across ethnic and racial lines to demand prevention of environmental catastrophes, we can truly benefit society.

For far too long, Black communities have been misled by agents from outside of the community. It’s time for collective action to combat these injustices. Communities or cities with overwhelming Black majorities must organize with direct action. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and so many others gave us the playbook. They helped Black people take action against segregation and fostered solidarity in the community, which then relied on their own resources, economics, and industries. Eventually, their commitment in numbers crippled their targets and change ensued.

Similarly, we need Black engineers and scientists to evaluate infrastructure and ecological concerns. We need the true truth of these systems to truly know what we’re up against and where we’re headed in the long term. After decades of neglect and hazardous conditions, a commitment to reparations for emotional and health damage and access to free long-term healthcare is also essential to rectify the trust gap.

These strategies underscore the necessity of self-determination for Black communities. Rather than being misguided and controlled by entities that have interests contrary to our well-being, we need to reclaim our right to forge a pathway to survival. When we reflect on the countless roadblocks to social, economic, political, and environmental justice, it’s incumbent that we take responsibility for the future.

Ultimately, Black people have been the most patriotic of any demographic in America. We’ve fought and bled in her wars, upheld her laws, and carried her message of tyranny and destabilization when our own communities were ravaged by the same institutions we swore to defend. One could say our loyalty to her cannot be questioned. Time and time again, we’ve seen landmark proposals on the importance of basic necessities, such as the Second Bill of Rights or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but never have they been implemented to fully meet our needs.

All we want is for the local, state, and federal governments, as well as corporations, to do right by us. To trample on the dignity and sacredness of our lives via man-made calamities is an affront to the ideals that American purports. We all should strive to protect Black lives, the self-government of Black communities, and the longevity of future Black generations.

By addressing our infrastructural and environmental challenges, we ensure a clean, sanitary, and thriving environment for all people of the diaspora to flourish.

Efran Menny is a husband, father, and small-time writer. He’s a passionate educator, student of social work, and host of the "Saintly Witnesses" podcast.

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