Environmental Racism Explained In Terms Simple Enough for a Child

From toxic water in Flint, Michigan to heat islands, examples of environmental racism abound these days. Here's how to explain the concept to kids, according to experts.

In 2014, Flint, Michigan switched its drinking water supply from Detroit's system to the Flint River in a cost-saving move. The water supply was severely contaminated with lead, and just two years later, published research concluded that it had led to doubling—and in some cases, tripling—of the incidence of elevated blood lead levels among kids in the Midwestern city. In 2017, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission stated in a report that the poor governmental response to the Flint crisis was a "result of systemic racism."

An image of a sign during a march in Flint, Michigan.
Getty Images.

But the Flint water crisis is just one glaring example of environmental racism that currently plagues our country. "Polluted air, poor transportation options, lack of efficient energy resources, and more contribute to poor quality of life for people of color throughout the nation," explains Jason Williams, assistant professor of Justice Studies at Montclair State University in Montclair, New Jersey.

And while these issues span decades, the COVID-19 pandemic has shed light on them, as Black Americans' high infection rates were partly due to comorbidity rates that had direct ties to environmental racism, points out Williams.

It might sound like a complicated topic to cover with kids, but experts agree it's one they can undoubtedly understand. Here's where to start.

What Is Environmental Racism?

Environmental racism is the choices and policies that result in the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color. But it's important to share how environmental racism affects everyone, says Williams. "For instance, minorities often live near incinerator facilities, landfills, and highways, contributing immensely to poor air quality and overall bad quality of life," he points out.

When explaining the consequences of environmental racism to kids, experts recommend keeping the conversation about kids to help them relate. "On average, kids of color are more likely assigned to old school buildings filled with asbestos and other hazardous contaminants," says Williams. "Kids sitting in schools with asbestos makes it harder for them to breathe. If kids cannot breathe, they cannot concentrate on their schoolwork, so the consequences of environmental injustice can have various cascading effects on their overall well-being."

Carole Boston Weatherford, author of the children's book Unspeakable, which is a close look at the Tulsa Race Massacre, adds that children in low-income communities and communities of color are more likely to be exposed to lead paint particles, which can cause developmental delays and learning difficulties in children.

You can then explain that "all children deserve the right to a productive future free from abnormal health setbacks," says Williams. "When one highlights how children in Flint were forced to drink lead-infused water, kids anywhere can identify with the brutal nature of that reality."

Examples of Environmental Racism

Explaining or reading about what happened in Flint can be a powerful way to illustrate environmental racism in action. Weatherford suggests pointing to and talking about the following examples as well:

Hurricane Katrina: Low-income communities and communities of color were hardest hit by hurricane Katrina in 2005. For economic reasons, they were also less likely to have evacuated. The levee that broke caused flooding in the predominantly Black Ninth Ward.

The worst polluters in your community: Consider the proximity of low-income communities and communities of color to the worst polluters in your own town: chemical plants, animal production, and waste disposal sites. Also, consider which workers at those companies are being placed at greatest risk due to exposure.

Highways: Note how so-called "urban renewal" efforts routed highways through communities where the poor and people of color live. That occurred in Greenwood, the African-American community that rebuilt after being torched during the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

Dakota Access Pipeline: Discuss the efforts of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and others to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline which encroaches on tribal lands and endangers the water supply.

Carole Boston Weatherford

We must care about others as much as we care about ourselves. We must use our voices, bodies, and resources to stand in solidarity with those plagued by environmental racism and those fighting for environmental justice.

— Carole Boston Weatherford

Why Does Environmental Racism Exist?

It'll be no surprise when your child asks why this is happening. Stephanie Toone, Captain Planet Foundation's Communications Director, says she and her 8-year-old son have spent time in neighborhoods where disparities—like a lack of sidewalks or a surplus of trash—are evident.

"He has instantly been able to identify [these] environmental disparities," says Toone. "He asks me 'why,' and I never have the right answer for him. I don't think there's an easy way to break it to children that the foundation of this country is based in white supremacy and the earliest concepts of Black people were as possessions and property."

Still, history lessons like these are key. "By explaining some of the structural injustices like the 3/5ths Compromise, Black Codes, Jim Crow, redlining, etc., we can provide some context around racism and further explain how these concepts tie into the everyday occurrences that affect people of color today," says Toone.

You can then explain that due to systemic racism and greed, government has put less money toward protecting communities of color from environmental health hazards, like lead in water or polluted air, and cut corners that have put people at risk.

"Greed led white supremacists to exploit and oppress people of color while at the same time profiting from their labor and denying their suffering," explains Weatherford. "Systemic racism creates inequities that put people of color at a disadvantage by almost every measure."

For younger kids, you can explain that government and people in power will often make choices to invest money—or not—in ways that prioritize some people over others, says Kristie Norwood, education manager at Start Early, a nonprofit focused on early childhood education and care.

How to End Racism with Environmental Justice

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) explains that environmental justice is "the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies." And in order for us to reach this goal, we need to achieve two things:

  • The same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards, and
  • Equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.

In short, if environmental racism is the choices and policies that result in the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color, then environmental justice is righting those wrongs, explains Norton.

And one of the first steps parents and kids can take toward environmental justice is to raise their own and others' consciousness, says Williams.

Ways Encourage Kids to Take Action

With young kids, consider lessons and additional resources for teaching about climate justice and the environment from the Zinn Education Project. And Norwood points parents to Social Justice Books, which has also compiled a list of titles on environmental justce for kids of all ages.

Tweens and teens might benefit from watching the Lifetime movie Flint, the documentary Come Hell or High Water: The Battle for Turkey Creek, as well as a PBS video featuring the "father of environmental justice," Dr. Robert Bullard.

From preschool on up, kids are invested in change and the understanding that they can change something if they want to, explains Norton. For that reason, it can be helpful to encourage kids to actually effect change through activities like visiting a city policymaker's office, writing a letter to a congressperson, or doing a physical activity to help change their environment (think: participating in a park clean up day, sorting recycling into containers for glass, plastic, and paper).

Ultimately, simply engaging kids on the topic of environmental racism can lead to big change. "Humanity and compassion begin at home," says Weatherford. "We must care about others as much as we care about ourselves. We must use our voices, bodies, and resources to stand in solidarity with those plagued by environmental racism and those fighting for environmental justice."

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