Category Archives: race
This piece contains lots of spoilers.
I wanted to love this book, I really did. I have enjoyed the couple of Julie Ellis novels I’ve read, but this one just tipped the charming/not happening scale a bit far. It has a really strong heroine in Vicky, who escapes the Russian pogroms to build a new life in America, trying to negotiate a difficult family situation and life as a prominent businesswoman. But there are lots of issues in this book that really grated, for example, every time a black servant is given an order, Ellis always points out how they were delighted to do it.
I’d just like to focus on the disability issues for now, though. There are many, not least with the disability-as-punishment trope cropping up at the end when the antagonist of the piece, Vicky’s son, has a stroke and is paralysed. He’s then housed in the cottage in which his mentally ill father shot himself. The very same cottage in which he kept Vicky while pretending she had a mental illness because he didn’t like the direction in which his mother was taking the company. Yep, it’s a bit of an intense novel.
But what I really want to talk about is the characterisation of Anita Roberts. Anita is married to Mark, a man Vicky falls in love with. So, naturally, she has to be a deceptive, evil shrew because that is the way “the other woman” gets sympathy in romance fiction. Except, she’s a wheelchair user, so it gets a lot more… interesting.
At first, Anita is set up as a martyr, the victim of a tragic accident who is doted on by her charming husband. They are a ‘special couple,’ Vicky is given to understand, and Anita is the darling of their social circle. As it turns out, she’s shrewd and conniving. She uses the excuse of the accident to deny her husband sex, even though the doctors said that they could have an ‘almost normal sex life’! It turns out that Anita never really wanted sex before the accident either, and now her horrible cruelty of not wanting sex has been unleashed! How terrible! It couldn’t possibly be the case that Anita doesn’t owe Marc sex, and she has become confident enough in herself to not engage with a sexual life she doesn’t really want. No, indeed. It is all about Marc’s pain and setting up his affair with Vicky. Anita’s not wanting sex gets to be the strange part, gets to be part of her evil scheme against poor Marc.
So, we’ve got the good crip who turns out to be hiding a deeply bitter and nasty nature. That’s old hat. But it was quite something to see that set up with a gendered aspect, too. Anita’s out to disparage Marc’s achievements and interests constantly, and she forces him to do ‘whatever she asks’ because otherwise he’s a terrible husband to his tragically beautiful and “damaged” wife. I suggest we identify a new trope, the Bad Shrewish Crip. The perfect mix of misogyny and ableism, out now at a bookstore near you.
But I really start to grit my teeth when we bring Anita’s Jewishness into it, because she perfectly fits the JAP stereotype. The Jewish American Princess is held to be a nagging, high maintenance woman with expensive taste and no sense of how irritating she is. And Anita is a JAP all over: she pokes fun at Vicky for having been a maid, loves designer clothing, and ends up forcing her husband to move to London as it is the only ‘civilised’ city on Earth. She’s simply set up as the most horrible conglomeration of disability, gender and racial/ethnic/cultural/religion stereotyping I have encountered in quite some time. The Bad Shrewish Jewish Crip, maybe?
So, in short: wanted to like it, feel kind of bad saying this because I like the author, but for goodness’ sake, this was one of the more frustrating reads of my year, and that is really saying something.
Los Angeles County, where I live, is incredibly diverse, both racially and linguistically. According to the Asian Pacific American Legal Center’s 2008 report on Language Diversity and English Proficiency in LA County (pdf file), more than half of Los Angeles County residents speak a language other than English at home. “The 10 most frequently spoken languages countywide are: English, Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog, Korean, Armenian, Vietnamese, Farsi, Japanese and Russian.” The report lists 39 distinct languages and almost 10,000 residents speak another language not on the list. About 29% of county residents are Limited English Proficient (LEP), which means they have some degree of difficulty communicating in English.
All of these people will have some contact with the health care system at some point in their lives and ideally, at more than one point. And, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, having a health care provider who speaks the same language as the patient has lots of important benefits to patient care (internal cites omitted):
A growing body of literature finds that language concordance between patients and providers (i.e., both speak the patient’s primary language well) results in greater patient understanding, leading to increased satisfaction, better medication adherence, greater understanding of diagnoses and treatment, greater well-being and better functioning for persons with chronic disease, and more health education.
The report goes on to note that only some of these problems can be mitigated by having the conversation interpreted. Using an interpreter can also disrupt the human connection between provider and patient and curtail full discussion. Interpretation, no matter how competent, is somewhat cumbersome and inefficient. This all means that having the health care provider be bilingual is by far the best solution, both for patients and providers. And often, cultural conceptions of health issues like pain, disability, and mental illness can be very important in understanding how a patient is describing symptoms or experiences, so a native speaker is the best.
The problem, of course, is that not all health care providers are bilingual. This means those who can speak another language are relatively valuable, so they can be more exclusive or take more high-paying jobs. If you are a patient who can afford to pay high rates or has great insurance, you may be able to get a provider who speaks your language, but you’re not guaranteed. And if you are a poorer patient and rely on emergency rooms and county health clinics for care, you just have to hope to get lucky. As I once heard it put, “If you’re a Cambodian therapist, you can basically write your own ticket. You’re not going to work at the County Department of Mental Health.”
So how can we go about getting more bilingual health providers, especially for relatively low-paying jobs to care for low-income patients? There’s no obvious answer. Here are some ideas, and their potential drawbacks:
- Require all health care providers to become fluent in another language. Providers all go through some training and licensing procedures, so we could build in a language requirement. There are some obvious difficulties – how would we ensure languages were proportionally represented? would we match providers to areas where there was a need for the language they spoke? how do we make sure someone learns, say, Hmong? would the cost of administering all those language proficiency tests be better spent elsewhere in the health care system? It also doesn’t serve our goal of having providers be native speakers.
- Recruit more native speakers of non-English languages to become health care providers. This could take a lot of different forms – scholarships and incentives for these people to enter training programs or medical schools, reaching out to younger kids to stimulate interest in health care professions, providing tutoring or other support resources, or a number of other methods. Most of these things would take a very long time before they resulted in a change in the makeup of health care providers. It’s also unclear how effective any of these methods are, and how much they cost.
- One possible solution is always to throw money at it. We could dedicate a lot of funding to paying big salaries for providers who speak other languages. While that would probably work, and relatively quickly, it would cost a lot of money. And would continue to cost a lot of money to maintain. And, most importantly, would not do anything to increase the total number of health care providers who teach non-English languages and if more were induced to enter the profession because of the high salaries, it would cost more and more money over time. To compensate, there would be fewer and fewer health care providers overall, or some other significant effect on the health care system from the significantly shrinking resources.
Personally, I support a little bit of all three. (Equivocation is a policy-maker’s prerogative.) Increasing incentives for health care professionals to know and learn non-English languages, aggressive recruiting for native non-English speakers to become health care professionals, and paying bonuses or other incentives to bilingual providers. To make the best of the current situation, I also support training interpreters and ensuring they’re used appropriately.
Are there other policies you think would help the problem?
[The scene sets with OYD, a slightly pale yet never-the-less still quite indigenous woman, sitting down to her trusty Macbook Pro, a laptop named “Lappy”, who has seen better days. She sets down and opens up her “drafts” tab under FWD/Forward, where she notices that egads! she has been working on this book review for over a month, and Oh my! how it must have been a long time since she has completed one. She cracks her “double jointed” knuckles like she does it too often, tucks a strand of brown hair behind her ear. She drags the review out of “drafts”, dusts it off, reaches for anything caffeinated, and begins to type.]
I like media where I can consume it, enjoy it, and get a sense that I am experiencing something that touches on experiences that are my own, that seems real to me with out over-exaggerating them (mostly). I also enjoy it when certain traits about characters are touched upon as a description, as part of who that character is, but then they are not brought up as Huge Deals throughout the entirety of the book.
These are a few things that really endeared Alexie Sherman’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian to me. Sherman created a protagonist “Junior”, who was born into the world with several oppressions, living on the axis of poverty, race, and disability. Within the first few pages of the book Junior gives a pretty good run down of how each of these things affects his life, and has always affected his life from the moment he was born. From never having quite enough to eat, to the way his “grease on the brain” has given him a stutter and seizures.
But that is where Alexie leaves the discussion about Junior’s disability. It is just a part of him, a description of his character. It isn’t some great obstacle he has to overcome. His disability isn’t some plot point, and it doesn’t help the other people around him become inspired about trying harder or appreciating their lives more. In fact, he goes into great detail early on, in those first few pages, to explain that the reservation kids often bully him. From an excerpt on NPR:
You wouldn’t think there is anything life threatening about speech impediments, but let me tell you, there is nothing more dangerous than being a kid with a stutter and a lisp.
A five-year-old is cute when he lisps and stutters. Heck, most of the big-time kid actors stuttered and lisped their way to stardom.
And, jeez, you’re still fairly cute when you’re a stuttering and lisping six-, seven-, and eight-year-old, but it’s all over when you turn nine and ten.
After that, your stutter and lisp turn you into a retard.
And if you’re fourteen years old, like me, and you’re still stuttering and lisping, then you become the biggest retard in the world.
Everybody on the rez calls me a retard about twice a day. They call me retard when they are pantsing me or stuffing my head in the toilet or just smacking me upside the head.
I’m not even writing down this story the way I actually talk, because I’d have to fill it with stutters and lisps, and then you’d be wondering why you’re reading a story written by such a retard.
Do you know what happens to retards on the rez?
We get beat up.
At least once a month.
Yep, I belong to the Black-Eye-of-the-Month Club.
Sure I want to go outside. Every kid wants to go outside. But it is safer to stay at home. So I mostly hang out alone in my bedroom and read books and draw cartoons.
Then, he moves leaves it there. We know he deals with these things as part of his life, but they do not define his life. Even the most horrible and hurtful parts of his life with disability are not defining his life.
Some other things that are not defined by Junior’s particular disability:
- His grades in school — He does well in school, and this point becomes part of the main plot, so I won’t give too much away for anyone who plans to read this book.
- His ability to participate in sports — Junior plays many sports, including contact sports. He is a good basketball player, playing on the school’s team.
- His ability to have romantic relationships — Despite his believing how shallow it is, Junior has a girlfriend, and as it turns out, she actually likes him! Imagine that!
The other aspect of this book that I enjoyed, though I don’t expect every reader to view the same way, is that the Indian Reservation depicted has a lot of truth to it from my own experiences of having grown up on and around my own as a girl. Twenty, and even ten years ago, our reservation life was not so far off from the one described here, with the exception of perhaps the climate being slightly different, and perhaps I was too young to understand and remember anything about crime rates. But there was poverty, and then there was crushing poverty where I am from. There was alcoholism, though I would venture that perhaps it wasn’t the hot-button stereotype that I feel is portrayed at times in Alexie’s book. I don’t know. Every Native community is different, for sure, with their own unique set of problems. While I feel that there is a lot of truth to what Sherman Alexie has created, I also feel that there is a sweeping generalization. So, it hits and it misses, and I would encourage you to read it for yourself and decide what you think.
There are a lot of instances of language that I would not recommend in a progressive or social change setting going on here in this book. I see it being useful and very much achieving its purpose, for example, there is a very racist joke told by a white boy that Junior meets on his first day of school, using the “n”, which I will not repeat, but which is disparaging to Natives and Black people alike. Junior demonstrates an intolerance for it, without missing a beat, and in Junior’s point of view, the kid respects him for it. But, I have to wonder, is it because of how Junior addresses it, or because this particular student realizes that what he said was hurtful and wrong? The demonstration of how wrong racism is in YA literature is something I want to see more, but I question, sometimes, the ways in which we see it handled. There is almost no discussion or consideration of why this is wrong, just the very visceral use of very hateful words (like above, with the use of the “r” word in so casual a context). Just like using rape as a metaphor to show that a “bad” guy is bad, I don’t need to see or read -ist language for shock value to confront -isms. However, a well placed word could have the proper effect if viewed through the proper lens, but I don’t know if that is quite so obvious here. Junior simply reacts, saying he has to defend Black people, and Indians, but he doesn’t go into much else.
I will also note on the Wise White Person, or WWP, as I will. It takes a WWP living on the rez to point out all of Junior’s problems early on, and essentially Save Him! from the Rotten Destitution! Without a WWP, why poor Junior might be dead, the victim of a trailer fire started by grease from frybread, helplessly drunk and passed out.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, is an excellent book, worth reading, for many reasons, but I caution you, gentle readers, there are many themes addressed, in very direct and raw ways that I am still not sure that I wholly approve of, and yet, as a non-white, Native American, woman, with a disability, I am not fully sure that fully disapprove of all of them either.
Oh, except for the sexist language. I found no use for that at all. I found no point where that taught any lesson, except where young boys were using it to show that “Hey! Women and girls’ bodies are weak, so calling you a woman or a girl body part means you are weak! Har har!” You get no points there, Alexie. Misogyny wins again! Whee!
In July, a study was released discussing disabled immigrants and revealing some alarming facts about who is in immigration detention in the United States. I wrote about it here, and the numbers were pretty astounding. The study uncovered the fact that 15% of the people in immigration detention in the United States had disabilities that impaired their ability to understand immigration proceedings. They were unable to defend themselves in court and unable to understand their legal rights. Some were kept for years in detention while officials debated what to do with them.
Immigration law is one of the most tangled areas of law in the United States. The system is complex and labyrinthine and it’s extremely difficult to navigate. It’s even harder when you’ve been held in detention for weeks, months, or years and you’ve been provided with inadequate care; being in confinement is stressful, and can exacerbate mental illness for some people, making it even more challenging to make your way through the court system. The ACLU set out some immediate demands in their report to get better protections for disabled detainees; as far as I know, those demands have not been met.
The report also documented cases of US citizens with disabilities who were deported because they were the wrong colour and they were unable to defend themselves in court. Just last week, I read a followup on a case I discussed; the American Civil Liberties Union is suing on behalf of Mark Lyttle, who was deported and left to fend for himself in Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Guatemala for four months before he was able to get assistance from a US embassy. This case has been dragging on for over a year.
Lyttle is of Puerto Rican descent, but he’s lived in the United States his whole life. He only speaks English. The government knew this when they deported him:
The U.S. government admitted in April that it had wrongly deported an N.C. native, but newly released documents show that federal investigators ignored FBI records and other evidence showing that the man was a United States citizen.
At the time of Mark Lyttle’s deportation, immigration officials had criminal record checks that said he was a U.S. citizen. They had his Social Security number and the names of his parents. They had Lyttle’s own sworn statement that he had been born in Rowan County. (source)
His story started when he was briefly jailed for ‘behavioural problems’ in a home for people with mental illness. Officials referred his case to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) despite being aware that he was a US citizen. ICE detained him, investigated, denied him legal counsel, and deported him to Mexico.
As he drifted homeless and penniless through Central America, he was unable to access the medications he was taking to treat his mental illness. Unstable environments contributed to a deterioration of his mental state. He considered suicide. He was imprisoned by multiple sets of officials and deported a second time when he managed to re-enter the United States. Finally, after reaching an embassy, his family was contacted and he was brought safely back into the United States.
There are layers of problems with this case. There’s the documented issue that ICE fails to serve people with disabilities in immigration detention, making it impossible for undocumented immigrants, documented immigrants, and wrongfully detained citizens alike to make their way through immigration proceedings; it’s pretty much impossible for anyone to self-represent in immigration court, let alone someone who is disabled, isolated, frightened, and not getting adequate care. It’s clear that a better system needs to be put in place to screen people when they enter detention so they can be provided with adequate services, if we are going to be detaining people at all.
And there’s the problem, not restricted to people with disabilities, of deporting people simply because they appear to be undocumented immigrants. If you have brown skin, if you ‘look Mexican,’ whether or not you are, whether or not you have documentation, there is a potential risk of deportion. ICE raids in workplaces across the country have swept up legal immigrants along with US citizens, including some people who have never been outside the US. Despite ample documentation, these people have been deported. Because they look wrong.
Cesar Ramirez Lopez, a San Pablo truck driver, won a $10,000 settlement in 2007 after he was held for four days by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents even after his lawyer convinced ICE investigators that he was a citizen.
Rennison Castillo, a Washington state man who was born in Belize but took his oath of citizenship while serving in the U.S. Army in 1998, who spent seven months in an ICE prison in 2006. He is suing the government with the help of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project in Seattle.
Some longtime observers of the immigration agency say that, while citizens make up a tiny fraction of the roughly 400,000 people who pass through ICE custody each year, such cases occur with some regularity. The problem is exacerbated, they say, by the fact that immigration detainees, unlike those in the criminal justice system, lack the right to legal counsel and other due process protections. (source)
One of the cornerstones of the legal system in the United States is supposed to be the premise that people are innocent until proven guilty. Yet, in the case of deportation proceedings, people are…guilty until deported. Denial of basic legal rights to people in immigration detention is a travesty and a human rights violation. People are intimidated into complying with deportation proceedings:
The young man was bullied into signing a form authorizing his voluntary deportation, except that it wasn’t made clear to Delgado that by affixing his John Hancock he was okaying being shipped off to Mexico. His belief was that he would be allowed to return home in Houston if he just did as he was told. (source)
This is a problem that goes far beyond the issues with disabled detainees in particular. The current state of our immigration system is a travesty that needs to be addressed; it is a foreign policy issue, it is a human rights problem, it is a fundamental violation of everything the United States claims to stand for. Providing basic legal rights to all people in immigration detention should be an immediate priority for the United States, because this has got to stop.
Putting all of those effects aside, I want to focus on the mental health effects of the spill. Obviously, we are still very close in time to the three month period before July 15, 2010, when an estimated 3 to 5 million barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico, so quantifying or understanding the mental health effects is difficult. An initial report from Louisiana State University found that nearly 60% of the 925 coastal residents they interviewed “said they were almost constantly worried by the oil spill.” Another recent study done by the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health (pdf) gives us some preliminary data on the impact of the spill on the mental health of the coastal population, focusing specifically on the mental health of children. And it is, frankly, not very good news.
The survey was limited to people who live within 10 miles or a 30 minute drive from the coastline in Louisiana and Mississippi. Between 40% and 50% of people had had direct exposure to the oil spill, either by being involved in the cleanup, coming in direct contact with spilled oil or cleanup activities, or who had lost or damaged property as a result of the spill. Excluding children who had emotional or behavioral problems prior to the spill, about 20% of the children in the sample were experiencing mental health problems after the spill. The researches estimate that only about 15-20% of these mental health problems were associated with direct exposure to the spill and cleanup activities, meaning that the remaining 80-85% of mental health problems were among those without direct exposure. Having direct exposure made both adults and kids about twice as likely to report mental health symptoms.
It will be utterly unsurprising to most readers of FWD to learn that mental health problems were related to the race and income of households. Black families were significantly more likely to have mental health problems among both adults and children. Similarly, children in households with incomes less than $25,000 were nearly three times as likely to have mental health problems than children in households with income over $75,000.
One woman interviewed by the study told the New York Times how the spill was contributing to mental health problems for her family:
Shannon Drury, a mother of four in Venice, La., said her husband, a commercial fisherman, had been working for BP but was owed six weeks’ pay. For a time after the spill, Ms. Drury was forced to find work as a houseboat cleaner, coming home exhausted at night. Ms. Drury’s 11-year-old daughter has grown more insecure, she said. Another child has developed a mysterious rash that Ms. Drury suspects is infected. Tensions over money, she said, reminded her of the warning from a visiting speaker from Alaska, who said the divorce rate there had skyrocketed after the Exxon Valdez disaster. “I realize what the woman was talking about now, because it puts different strains on your family from what you’ve been used to,” Ms. Drury said.
This kind of mounting pressure is similar to the National Institute of Mental Health’s understanding of how disasters like the oil spill contribute to mental health problems. As NIMH Dr. Farris Tuma explains:
One of the tragedies that we have seen over and over again after large scale disasters, is really a spiraling downward of people who were, maybe, managing to keep their lives together, to keep their emotions and behavioral problems under control. But with some additional stress and some additional disorganization in their community- really became quite disabled by their anxiety, depression, psychosis.
Despite the magnitude of this problem, the current resources available for these families and communities are very limited. One of the women interviewed in the study told the New York Times the only counseling resources to which she had access were a new program started by her church to respond to the spill. All of this suggests that BP should be held responsible for assisting these families with their mental health symptoms resulting from the spill. Unfortunately – and again, unsurprisingly – Kenneth Feinberg, the independent “claims czar” who will decide who gets compensated from BP’s compensation fund, said the fund was not likely to pay damages for mental illness and distress alleged to be caused by the spill.
“If you start compensating purely mental anguish without a physical injury — anxiety, stress — we’ll be getting millions of claims from people watching television,” Feinberg said. “You have to draw the line somewhere. I think it would be highly unlikely that we would compensate mental damage, alleged damage, without a signature physical injury as well.”
Please excuse me while I beat my head against the desk for about an hour or so. The implication that compensating people who have experienced the kind of mental anguish and uncertainty described above would open the door to an endless stream of claims from people who felt mildly upset when viewing television coverage of the spill is so condescending, so insulting, so wildly inappropriate that I’m having trouble responding coherently. This kind of attitude is offensive on a broad level – it minimizes the significant impact of mental health problems by equating them to obviously silly and spurious claims and implies that only physical health problems are “real” problems worth compensating.
But this attitude is even more harmful for Gulf Coast residents. This is compensation that people need in order to seek treatment and assistance with their mental health problems that they are otherwise extremely unlikely to be able to afford or obtain, so denying these claims means they’ll be left to cobble together whatever meager resources they can. As the study discusses, these are not isolated people who live in a vacuum, but will have real and lasting effects on the “social ecology” of the region, affecting entire communities and regions. And the people most likely to be left without any help are those who are already more vulnerable because of their race and their poverty. In short, administering the fund this way and denying these claims will not only perpetuate but actually exacerbate the underlying inequalities in the region, punishing poor children of color for the stigmatizing beliefs held by Mr. Feinberg.
This is especially galling as there have already been suicides linked directly to mental health problems stemming from the oil spill. William Kruse, who had two boats he expected to use for tourism over the summer, was forced to work cleanup for BP and became increasingly depressed and despondent, eventually killing himself in late June. It is almost certain that there have been more suicides that have not received national news coverage. It is unclear whether Mr. Feinberg would consider a gunshot wound to the head a physical injury sufficient to justify compensation of the underlying mental health problem.
Thankfully, the state governments are reaching out to BP for help in this area. Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida have all submitted requests to BP for money to provide mental health services to affected residents. Louisiana has requested $10 million specifically for emergency mental health services to respond to the crisis. (BP has not yet responded to these claims.) We can only hope that these states and the Congressional members who have oversight over the BP compensation fund will continue fighting so that the mental health needs of affected residents can be met.
Thanks to Karen Whyte for the suggestion for this post, as well as for many of the links and materials cited here.
The Gulf oil spill that has been capturing the news cycle in the United States for the last few months finally appears to be under control, and now we’re faced with a common problem: We have a whole lot of waste from the spill and associated cleanup, and it needs to go somewhere. This includes crude oil, equipment used by cleanup crews, soiled booms, and all kinds of other spill-associated detritus.
According to a story published at Colorlines last week, nine landfills in the Gulf region have been selected as sites for disposing of waste. Waste management authorities claim the material isn’t toxic, which means that regular municipal landfills, rather than landfills specifically designed to handle hazardous waste, are being used. Of the nine landfills chosen, five are located in low income communities of colour.
This is not a coincidence. While it is true that there are a number of primarily nonwhite communities in the Gulf, and that many of these communities are also low income, thus making it statistically more probable that at least some of the waste would end up in such communities, this case is clearly an example of environmental racism. There is a very long history in the United States of pushing unwanted toxic waste into low income communities in general, and communities with large nonwhite populations in particular.
There have been rumblings over the last few months about where BP is putting the oil spill waste, and most of those rumblings have focused on outraged white communities. This distracts neatly from the far more serious issue, the fact that most of this waste would end up in nonwhite communities, and that these communities would experience serious long term consequences. Focusing on white communities also allows the media to completely ignore the overt racism involved in deciding where potentially toxic waste ends up.
From the start, the oil spill has disproportionately impacted people of colour. Many of the cleanup workers were people of colour, and BP also used primarily nonwhite prison labour in oil spill cleanup and tried to hide it. Now, with the spill cleanup winding down, waste from the spill is being dumped on nonwhite communities even as these communities struggle to recover economically from the impacts of the spill. They can look forward to leaching of oil and chemicals from their landfills in the coming decades, and reports on the ground also indicate that the waste is already poorly controlled, with oil slicks and tarballs showing up around communities being used as dumping sites.
Given that this waste is supposedly ‘nontoxic,’ why were cleanup workers wearing protective suits? Given that this waste is supposedly ‘nontoxic,’ why are people who have been exposed to it getting sick? Given that this waste is supposedly ‘nontoxic,’ why is care being taken to ensure it doesn’t end up in privileged communities?
Crude oil can contain things like benzene, chromium, mercury, sulfur, toluene, and xylene. These substances are known to have deleterious effects on human health; at the very least, skin irritation and difficulty breathing. The oil spill waste also contains traces of dispersants, known to be toxic. And the government wants to stand by the claim that the waste isn’t toxic? Dumping these waste in facilities poorly equipped to handle it will result in long term environmental repercussions, in addition to human health problems.
I’ve written here before about how hazardous waste disposal methods tend to disproportionately impact communities of colour, and how they are most definitely a disability rights issue. Environmental pollution is a disability rights issue, and it’s a social justice issue. Toxic waste makes people sick. Making people sick is not ok, especially when familiar patterns of oppression can be seen in who is exposed to the greatest risks. If this waste is nontoxic, surely it can go in any landfill, and it would make sense to use landfills as close to the coast as possible, right? So the waste travels the shortest distance? What exactly was the selection process behind the nine landfills identified as sites for Gulf spill waste?
BP, like other major oil companies, has a long history of engaging in environmental pollution, including unauthorized dumping of materials known to be toxic. The vast majority of this pollution occurs in communities least equipped to fight it, and when oil companies are caught doing it, often the biggest punishment is a relatively small fine. In this case, BP isn’t being clandestine: the company is being openly invited to dump waste. The claim is that it’s ‘nonhazardous,’ but is it? Even if it’s not toxic, is it really the kind of thing we want leaching out of landfills and into waterways and farmlands?
These communities will be dealing with the repercussions of BP’s dumping well into the future, just like communities all over the world where people are sickening and dying because of toxic materials present in the environment. Just like communities where rates of chromosomal anomalies are skyrocketing as a result of exposure to toxic substances. Communities with limited support systems to help sick and disabled community members are the ones disproportionately facing an increase in chronic conditions and disabilities. A long term policy of dumping toxic pollutants on low income nonwhite communities and refusing to provide support for the consequences sends a pretty clear message to members of those communities, as well as to the rest of society.
We need to be talking about the connection between environmental pollution and racism and we need to be combating plans to dump hazardous waste on low income communities of colour, from protesting clearly racist environmental policy to working in solidarity with communities who are actively fighting toxic waste disposal in their landfills and on their sacred lands.