Pollution is Killing BIPOC Communities

What I learned from Mobile, Alabama’s Africatown

Graphic by Sophie Reichert / GRAPHICS CENTER

Breathing in and breathing out are familiar functions of everyday life. These rituals are essential to maintaining the human condition. But, for some members of Black and Brown communities, environmental changes have made it so these simple actions can shorten a life, rather than maintain it.

It is important for us to acknowledge how environmental racism impacts communities of color, and demand accountability. 

American singer and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte said, “Although slavery may have been abolished, the crippling poison of racism still persists, and the struggle still continues.” Racism has taken its shape in many different aspects of my life as a Black man. One form of racism that I have become increasingly aware of is environmental racism. Throughout the country, communities of color have had adverse experiences with water and air pollution, as well as other environmental risk factors. 

Last winter, I had the privilege of going on an immersion trip with the Marshall-Riley Living-Learning Community. One of the places we visited was the once-beautiful Africatown in Mobile, Alabama. Africatown is where the last slave ship to the United States landed, and today it has a 98% Black population, keeping with the trend since its establishment. The town’s once blue skies are now filled with smoke from paper factories and power plants, and its formerly clear river flows with polluted water.

On the trip, we spoke with Major Joe Womack, who has been a resident of Africatown his entire life. He shared with us the governmental practices that intentionally target his predominantly Black neighborhood. “People born after 1945 usually don’t live past 65 [here],” the retired army officer told us. During the talk, he explained to me that both the city and state government are doing nothing to address the pollutants prevalent in the area.

From using people’s land for power plants, to polluting their water — the Black neighborhood has become a health hazard. Studies have proven that areas impacted by environmental racism are catalysts for a multitude of health issues at high rates, such as cancer and nervous system complications. As the Guardian reported in 2018, although localized cancer data has not been collected by the state of Alabama in Africatown, locals describe a concerning trend of “many longtime residents dying before the age of 65, very often from cancer.” 

The main polluter has been identified by locals as International Paper, the largest paper company in the world. Though their Mobile factory closed down, the improper disposal of its waste has caused soil and water pollution. In 2018, the residents of Africatown filed a lawsuit against the paper giant, alleging the company had been polluting the air, ground, and water, and when discovered, had tried to hide this fact. 

International Paper isn’t the only polluter. Kemira Water Solutions, which finished expansion in 2020, created a new chemical unit in the area which creates Bio-Acrylamide, a highly toxic chemical which has been proven to cause nerve damage and different cancers according to the World Health Organization. According to the environmental organization Africatown C.H.E.S.S., the site has already caused damages: in a 2018 incident, a chemical tank overheated and threatened to explode, forcing Africatown residents to evacuate.

Womack is not alone in his dismay for the government’s handling of environmental pollutants. The Mobile Environmental Justice Action Coalition, founded in 2013, works with Africatown residents “to defend the inalienable rights to clean air, water, soil, health, and safety; to promote environmental justice; and to take direct action when the government fails to do so, ensuring community self-determination.”

Their work has started to pay off. In 2022, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) struck down a permit for a chemical plant near Africatown. The agency argued that Alabama was not being fully transparent on questions of air pollution, failing to meet its legal requirement. To reach its conclusion, the EPA relied on work done by the Mobile Environmental Justice Action Coalition. While a victory, there is still a long way to go to fix the environmental racism that is literally shortening Black folks’ lives.

This blatant disregard for human life is a prime example of how neglecting to resolve unhealthy environmental conditions in Black and Brown communities is just another nuanced form of the same  racism experienced by our ancestors during the Civil Rights Movement and prior.

In terms of environmental racism, we have been met with an issue that is virtually inescapable for many. Depending on where you live, it’s dangerous to walk outside and take a deep breath because of the polluting forces in your community. 

For me, going to Africatown and seeing how environmental racism painfully alters the lives of my people was jarring. What’s worse is knowing the same phenomenon is repeating all across the country: from Flint, Michigan to “Cancer Alley” in Louisiana, and here in San Francisco in Bayview-Hunters Point

Racism in America pollutes the very air we breathe. Addressing environmental racism will be a long, complex process. The first step, though, is to acknowledge its existence. Then, we can demand accountability.

Editor-in-Chief: Megan Robertson, Chief Copy Editor: Sophia Siegel, Managing Editor: Jordan Premmer, Opinion Editor: Chisom Okorafor

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *