The Underlying Pandemics

Jan 18, 2021 | BM4F Spotlights, Uncategorized, Young, Gifted & Green Blog Series | 1 comment

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere!

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Every year we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr as the “dreamer”.  His “I have a dream speech” is often touted as one of the greatest speeches of the 20th century. He is described as a companion of Black civil rights, a figure head in the movements of the 1960’s. However, while all the descriptions are true, they limit the view of King’s efforts to only one or two goals while ignoring the complexities of his work. Even his “I Have a Dream” speech is watered down or cropped to fit the narrative of him being a “dreamer”. Dr. King and Lyndon B. Johnson are credited with the passing of monumental legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voter’s Rights Act of 1965 which actually laid the foundation for  the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act. King’s message was multilayered, and his work focused on the totality of Black life– not just voting.

How can we experience the fullness of life when all those aspects are affected by the specter of white supremacy?

Right now, we are living through a public pandemic; however, we know that America has several pandemics that are and have been raging for decades, even centuries. Environmental racism and environmental justice are not pandemics that we normally hear about. Black and Latinx Americans are dying from COVID-19 at higher rates than white Americans. What is more complicated is the why. Why are Black and Latinx Americans dying from COVID-19 more than whites? The obvious answer is, of course, systemic racism, but systemic racism is extremely nuanced. We know that Black people, especially, are victims of racial bias in the healthcare system. We know that Black people endure more levels of stress due to racial prejudice. Under the pandemic of racial injustice lies another pandemic that is often overlooked especially when it comes to Black and Brown people.

Historically, Black and Brown communities have been located around areas of extreme contamination. Memphis, TN (the site of the historic Sanitation Worker Strike of 1965), is home to several sites in both in the Northern and Southern parts of the city–which are both home to majority Black and Brown residents. Now, let’s be clear, when we refer to environmental racism, we are not just talking about low-income black communities. If you look at the history, especially here in Memphis, you will see that the same communities that are considered low income and Black now were thriving when contamination sites were at their peak. I think our discussions of this issue are often tainted with an underlying belief that this only happens in poor Black communities. All Black communities are vulnerable. For example, Whitehaven, a Black middle-class community, has been in a constant battle with a waste management facility that is trying to expand its operations. There was a push to put a landfill in Hickory Hill (another majority Black and Brown community in Memphis) less than two years ago.  

Legacy Pollution Challenges

One aspect that is never discussed about environmental contamination is, once exposed, the contaminants almost never leave the body. Once the body has been exposed, the contamination can manifest in several ways.  Cancers, developmental disorders, learning disabilities and behavioral disorders are just some of the way’s exposure can show up in the body. Many, if not all, have lifelong consequences including a weakened immune system that puts us at more risk from diseases like COVID-19. These health issues can then be passed down from parent to child because the DNA has been altered. Lead poisoning, for example, often shows up as asthma, eczema, and behavioral disorders. That “cancer” that “runs” in your family could have been caused by lead or other exposure to environmental toxins.

All this damage can be caused by us simply living in a Black and Latinx community. Because Black and Latinx people are viewed as disposable, our communities are viewed in that same manner. Our water is contaminated, our air is polluted and to think that this is by accident is foolish. That “bad” child or out of control adult could be suffering from lead induced brain tumors and because of the criminalization/policing of Black bodies, that person will never get the testing they need. They will never know what is causing these illnesses or behaviors. They will simply be imprisoned or killed leaving family members to wonder what they did wrong.  

The Faces of Environmental Racism

 My connection to this issue comes from the Memphis Defense Depot.  A 632-acre site opened in the 1940’s, the Depot is a former warehousing and distribution center for the U.S. military where waste handling and disposal occurred. This site was positioned right in the middle of several middle-class black communities. Castalia, Glenview, Magnolia and Elliston Heights and the residents are experiencing effects from the toxins present at the site to the president day. Releases of chemicals from the wastes that were released on site resulted in contaminated soil, groundwater, surface water and sediment. There were seven schools in the area surrounding the site. I attended two of the schools in this area and many of the children showed health and behavioral disorders. We did not understand that these behaviors were related to our proximity to the depot.  We were labelled as “being bad”, lacking fathers and strong family structures and called thugs by those that lived outside of the community. Our very environment was weaponized against us. The contaminated ground we walked on, the water we drank and the air we inhaled all harmed us. My elementary school was built within a few feet of this site and many community members were employed at the site. The depot was declared a Superfund Site in 1992 and the remediation process continues to this day. I could talk about the illness that my family and friends have experienced but that could turn into a 3,000 word essay. I would have to write a book to tell you horrors the residents have experienced.

That “bad” child or out of control adult could be suffering from lead induced brain tumors and because of the criminalization/policing of black bodies, that person will never get the testing they need.

Remembering the Legacy & Demanding Action

Eddie Bautista, executive director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, says “All the environment really is [is] where you live, work, play, or pray.” What happens when that “environment” is tainted? The lives of Black children are threatened by environmental racism simply by living in “Black zip codes”. What is their crime other than being conceived Black? I think Dr. King understood the levels of white supremacy and how it impacts our entire being, from cradle to grave. Dr. King came to Memphis twice to fight for the sanitation workers. He did not just fight for high wages but for better working conditions. The conditions where a person works and lives directly impacts their mental and physical health. Those sanitation workers had to deal with a constant level of fear and stress. They were not even allowed to take shelter in the rain. They had to take cover in the back of the sanitation trucks which led to two of the workers being crushed to death.

Civil Rights is not just about riding in the back of the bus or voting rights. All people have the right to live in healthy and safe communities. What good is it to have voting rights and be too ill to take advantage of that right? We have entire populations of Black people that have suffered with this issue. How many more Flint, Michigans must happen until we understand that we cannot continue to divorce environmental racism from the issues of civil and human rights. It intersects at all levels. Dr. King and other foundational civil rights leaders understood this. Carrying the torch and remembering the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King is more than a dream, our actions in dismantling environmental racism deserves action.

1 Comment

  1. Floridia Jackson

    Good stuff, Brother Frank!
    “Carrying the torch and remembering the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King is more than a dream, our actions in dismantling environmental racism deserves action.”


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