My grandmother grew up poor and black in Little Rock, Arkansas, long before anyone even pretended to care about the quality of water or air that poor black and brown kids bathed in, drank from or breathed. The events that have unfolded in Flint, Michigan over the past year, show that more than 70 years later this fact still holds true.
A number of studies and reports conducted by universities and environmental organizations have revealed that communities of color are disproportionately exposed to polluted air, hazardous waste and unsafe drinking water. According to one such report released by the NAACP, 78 percent of all Black Americans live within 30 miles of a coal fired power plant. Even more horrifying, of the two million people who live within three miles of the 12 worst plants in the nation, 76 percent are people of color. Additionally, a study conducted by Yale University revealed that Hispanics and black people have the highest rates of exposure to a number of air pollutants which have been connected to lung disease, asthma, cancer and cardiovascular complications. This is not a new phenomenon, America has an extensive history of relegating communities of color—and more specifically poor communities of color—to the most environmentally vulnerable locales.
These facts are made even more disturbing when analyzed within the context of the poor relationship which exists between the American health care system and this country’s inhabitants of color. This too, is a phenomenon grounded in a history of mistrust, abuse and neglect. The Tuskegee Syphilis studies taught Black America that American health professionals have no problem intentionally withholding treatment for manageable—or even wholly preventable—diseases. The story of Henrietta Lacks only confirmed our suspicion that our lives and our stories were worth nothing more than their immediate contribution to scientific discovery. Even now, in 2016, this distrust continues to be cultivated: In Flint it has been revealed that citizens voiced complaints about their water nearly 18 months before officials did anything about the situation. A recent study from the University of Virginia has found that a substantial amount of medical students actually believe in a number of biological differences between blacks and whites that have been repeatedly disproven. These beliefs include the idea that black people are less sensitive to pain than white people. Each of these incidents and the thousands of others which occur daily but will not make it into the news or the history books have fostered a legacy of suspicion among communities of color, who justifiably feel as though their doctors cannot be trusted. The result is that our country’s most vulnerable populations are left to cope with the poisoning of their communities with very little professional support for those all too frequent moments when sickness does strike.
While the water crisis in Flint is incredibly significant, we must acknowledge that it is not exceptional. This latest crisis offers only a glimpse into the historical and ongoing trend in which our most vulnerable communities have been both intentionally and unintentionally crippled by local and federal officials who view them as nothing more than collateral damage. Even when these populations find themselves seeking out the aid of health professionals, their concerns are too often dismissed or ignored.
To this day, my grandmother still refuses to drink anything but bottled water. Despite living in the suburbs of Savannah, Georgia, in an area which has repeatedly passed its water quality inspections, her fear of unclean water and the likelihood of catching a sickness which will go untreated still persists. No American citizen should live with that type of fear; No American citizen should worry that the water they pay for, or the air they breathe will be the thing that kills them. It is the job of local and federal officials across the nation to ensure that sound recommendations made by the Environmental Protection Agency are enforced or else revised to be more effective. In the meantime, it is the job of healthcare professionals to ensure that they actively seek to treat as well as meaningfully repair their relationship with the communities that most need them, but have too many reasons to fear them. It is my hope that my children will come of age in a country that cares about their health and well-being as much as it cares about the health and well-being of white children, but history has taught me that this hope will likely never be realized.
Jailyn Gladney is a southern black writer and student at Boston University where she is pursuing a degree in Sociology and African American Studies. She is most interested in the intersections of politics, policy and culture as they relate to black American communities. Her work has appeared both online and in print in publications such as The Guardian, The Nation and Gawker.