The city of Flint, Michigan has drawn national attention due to lead poisoning in its water. But while the situation in Flint is tragic, it is not unique.
For example, in the Navajo Nation, the U.S. government built a uranium mine during the Cold War. Today, many Navajo have to choose between risking cancer or traveling many miles to access water.
In Charleston, West Virginia, tap water was banned after some residents noticed that their water smelled like licorice, prompting investigators to discover a chemical spill. Within the Appalachian region, coal companies have also disposed of waste in ways that have poisoned numerous towns’ water supplies.
These are just a few manifestations of a problem that reaches all the way across the country.
What these places all have in common is the people that live there are not powerful enough to have their concerns taken seriously. West Virginia is the third-poorest state in the country; the Navajo also face high rates of poverty and oppression along racial lines. Similarly, Flint has a large black population.
According to a 2015 report by the Environmental Protection Agency, people living near Superfund sites — areas contaminated by hazardous waste — are disproportionately poor, of color and less likely to have a high school diploma. Whereas white, educated and/or upper-class people have the power to defend their communities, with many companies and governments perfectly comfortable in treating impoverished areas and communities of color as dumping grounds.
This situation results from a variety of factors, all stemming from an unequal economic system.
Companies are driven to exploit land and labor because of the profit that it brings them. As long as the motive to do so remains, they will continue to ignore and cover up the pollution they cause.
Wide disparities in income mean that some people hold the power to oppress others, while others are unable to resist. Though poverty exists because of systemic factors, many people justify its existence by saying that poor people deserve to be poor because they have not worked hard enough — along with many other negative stereotypes. Because of their negative attitudes towards impoverished people, individuals in power ignore their concerns. Furthermore, those who make less money do not have the means to curry favor or influence in politics.
Finally, racism and capitalism are deeply intertwined. As Nancy Fraser, a philosophy professor at The New School, argues in a 2016 paper, capitalism relies upon racial hierarchy to function. When people are classified into racial categories and some of those categories are dehumanized and deemed inferior, it becomes socially acceptable to mistreat them. As a result, corporations become free to violently exploit the labor and resources of people of color, which allows them to turn a higher profit.
The connection between water pollution, racism and class inequality means that none of these issues can be addressed in isolation. Understanding the relationships between all forms of oppression can guide us as we work to achieve a better world.