Charged Roots of Racism


Residents protest outside the now-closed Exide plant. // Credit: Los Angeles Wave

The brown kids play on the grass. What they don’t know is they are also playing with their lives. Toxic battery fuel has leached into the ground and now threatens their health. And as horrific as this situation is, it is only one small aspect of an overarching issue: environmental racism.

First of all, what is environmental racism? The Oxford Dictionary defines environmental racism as “Racial discrimination in the development and implementation of environmental policy, especially as manifested in the concentration of hazardous waste disposal sites in or near areas with a relatively large ethnic minority population.” My hometown of Maywood, CA, and its surrounding neighborhoods experienced environmental racism firsthand from decades of unchecked pollution.

Maywood and other surrounding communities, such as Vernon, are constituted mostly of working-class immigrants and Latinos. In these communities, a battery recycling plant owned by Exide contaminated as many as 10,000 nearby homes for decades with lead, arsenic, cadmium and other toxic metals by releasing them into the air, water, and soil. It was only after years of protest from the communities that Exide Technologies closed the facility in 2015. However, closing the facility is only the first step in an extensive cleanup process that will take many years and millions of dollars.

Many of those affected have been young children, and, as a result, residents are angry at the state regulators and the Department of Toxic Substance Control, which continued to allow the plant to operate. The Department is now in charge of cleaning up, yet the residents find it hard to let go of their feelings of betrayal and resentment toward authorities and trust them to deal with this mess.

Beyond the practical problem of cleaning up, the underlying issue of discrimination is and will always be an ongoing battle. The segregation of minority communities in communities like Maywood is not a recent phenomenon; it is the result of decades of placing factories near low income families, gentrification, and other chronic problems. Environmental racism grows out of this phenomenon.

Simply reusing, recycling, and reducing will not solve the larger issue at heart. The truth is that we must tackle the very matter of racism itself, which is no easy fix. However, there are some actions being done to loosen the institutions of racism. Members of other communities have come to canvass in Maywood and other areas affected to help elevate the issue.

Making lasting change will involve years of effective community planning, industry limits, public and private support as well as local, state, and national governance. Educating others of the implications of environmental racism is especially key in fixing this issue. Environmental racism can also be effectively fought by pushing schools and local governments to be more informative and transparent in order to help with environmental problems in their communities. Thankfully, the next generation of such minority communities are being educated of these problems and are beginning to demand more transparency.