John Oliver on environmental racism: ‘It’s clear we have a massive problem’ | John Oliver

John Oliver looked at environmental racism in the United States, where, as with many things, the effects of toxic pollution are disproportionately affecting people of color, especially black Americans. The Last Week Tonight host cited studies showing that black Americans are 38% more exposed to polluted air and 75% more likely to live in communities adjacent to a factory or plant.

These differences apply when controlled for income; Black Americans who earn $200,000 annually were exposed to more air pollution than white Americans who earn $25,000, “proving once again that racism is one of the few things in this country that is more powerful than money,” Oliver noted. “In fact, I believe America’s current top five rankings are: racism, beef, viral videos of soldiers reuniting with their dogs, DJ Khaled’s PR team, and then money.”

Oliver examined how this happened and how pervasive the problem is today, beginning with the story of redlining, the AKA federal policy that prevented black Americans from receiving federally-backed home loans where whites lived. The areas in which they could live were often designated for industrial use as well, essentially overlaying the maps of color communities and industrial waste zones.

“But history and zoning is only part of the story here, because it’s also about who has the power to push back,” Oliver continued, “and polluters often assume that black communities in particular can’t stop them.”

“Sometimes pollution can be invisible. And those you would expect to warn you about can be incredibly slow to do so when it comes to communities of color.

Oliver gave the example of the West Calumet condominium complex in East Chicago, Indiana, a state-sponsored housing development built on a former lead smelter. Lead levels around the complex have been dangerously off the charts for years, at up to 200 times the emergency levels. “Which just isn’t great when the place you found it is the ground,” Oliver said, “a place that’s notoriously hard to avoid unless you’re willing to live the rest of your life with it.” to spend playing at a very high level – stakes version of the floor is lava.”

Worse, the government knew for decades that the area under and around the condominium complex was dangerously toxic before letting residents know. Oliver cited government reports on lead toxicity in the area in 1985, 1998 and 2009 when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared West Calumet a Superfund site and prioritized it for cleanup and still didn’t notify local residents because of federal law this does not require its agencies to notify renters that a unit is on a Superfund property. “Which I really can’t believe,” said Oliver.

“The whole point of Superfund is to officially classify something in the government record as very dangerous,” he added. “So it’s not great to do that and then not tell the people who are actually at risk. It’s like putting up a “don’t lean over the fence” sign at a bear show and pointing it at the bear side. Sure, the information is technically out there, but it doesn’t really do much to improve public safety.”

Finally, in 2016, the government informed residents – 31 years and eight government agencies later. “And even then, the steps the government took were extremely pathetic,” Oliver said, including yard signs warning children not to play in the dirt or grass. “We all know there’s nothing children respect more than the authority of a weak sign,” he said dryly.

The West Calumet example is extreme but telling, as 70% of the hazardous waste sites on the Superfund list are within a mile of government-sponsored housing. And “without major changes, our whole system is currently set up to make already contaminated places worse and worse”. These areas are literally referred to as ecological “sacrifice zones,” such as Louisiana’s Cancer Alley, where cancer risk is more than 50 times the national average.

“When you put all of this together – a history of racial zoning, ineffective regulation and a government that continues to prioritize industry profits over people’s health – it’s clear we have a massive problem,” Oliver said.

The Biden administration has identified environmental racism as a priority but also said race will not be a factor in deciding where to focus efforts. “Which is pretty bloody annoying,” Oliver said. The conservative-majority Supreme Court is likely to strike down explicitly race-based policies that leave the US “in a pretty damn backward position. When all solutions to this problem have to be race-blind, when the causes are demonstrably not so.”

Oliver called for more support for local activists and intensive zoning reform for an “unacceptable” status quo. “When this country designates communities of color as ‘victim zones,’ the clear message is that the people who live in them are expendable,” he said. “That it’s okay if their kids can’t play outside and their lifespans are shorter.

“And unless we take big strides to address environmental racism and call it what it is, a brutal divide will remain in this country, where some are treated as if they are worthy of protection, and others as they may be sacrificed.