By : Grace Raih
6 min read
Race is the strongest predictor of water and sanitation access. This finding, attributed to a study conducted by the US Water Alliance, is the result of a long history of discriminatory practices entrenched in water infrastructure development, as well as a decline in federal funding. As the effects of climate change accelerate before our very eyes, global water access will continue to suffer due to extreme flooding, rising sea levels, prolonged droughts and disrupted ecosystems. Compounding upon these ecological threats, there are the terrors of racial capitalism in which the human right to safe and accessible water is endangered by privatization, discrimination, corruption, pollution and unchecked depletion of this most irreplaceable resource.
This past August, residents of Jackson, Mississippi were warned by the state health department to follow a strict boil-water advisory as heavy rain had caused the Pearl River to flood, crashing an already outdated water treatment system and leaving Jackson’s water supply undrinkable. This current water crisis is unfortunately not rare for the state capital. In 2020, Jackson’s water system failed an EPA inspection, which concluded their drinking water had the potential to be host to harmful bacteria or parasites. 80% of Jackson’s residents are Black and 19.6% live below the poverty line, according to the US Census Bureau. Decades of government disinvestment in communities of color, red lining, segregation, and Jim Crow legislation in Mississippi have directly led to this systemic crisis of environmental racism.
In 1982, civil rights leader Dr. Benjamin Chavis coined the term “environmental racism” following an event in which residents of Warren County, a predominately Black North Carolina town, were arrested by riot-clad highway patrol officers for protesting a state-sanctioned dumping of toxic soil in their town. The conceptualization of terminology for this particular violence helped to formalize the environmental justice movement, primarily led by people of color, within US law and policy. In her essay “Defunding the Police as Environmental Justice” Alexandrea Wilson argues that the anti-black violence inherent to policing is itself an environmental hazard. “Like racist environmental policies, policing is deliberately life-threatening. Policing can be wielded by government institutions to incriminate Black and Brown communities in the same way these institutions can pass policies that pollute the local water systems of a community.”
Under the political and economic system of racial capitalism, police are the powerful state actors deployed to safeguard white corporate interests, acting as mercenaries for ventures that harm the environment and exacerbate resource scarcity within vulnerable communities. The brutal police violence that NODAPL protesters faced for their solidarity against the Dakota Access Pipeline shows the sustained capability and willingness of the police to carry out the whims of corporate environmental racism. The unrestrained greed of the fossil fuel industry and other corporations that directly fuel the climate crisis do not look at those who suffer under its chaos with urgency. Under racial capitalism, vital human resources like water are not safeguarded for altruism, but for their potential for profitability and exploitation. Water security, climate change, and police violence are all interconnected issues that will not be solved through the neoliberal lens of profitability, efficiency, or reform of these fundamentally noxious systems.
Originally published in-print in Boston Compass Newspaper #151 October 2022
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