Introduction to #FromFlintToDAPL

#FromFlintToDAPL is a collaborative effort between three Beloit College students who hope to provide a starting point for readers wanting to learn more about environmental racism in a modern context. Environmental racism is a complex issue in which People of Color are put at a greater risk of environmental hazards by those in power. It is often overlooked and downplayed as isolated issues of environmental destruction that happen to affect Communities of Color. However, it is a systematic issue that lies at the intersection of environmental destruction and racism

In this syllabus, we aim to better understand environmental racism through the examples of the Flint Water Crisis and the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). The predominantly Black city of Flint found lead in their water after their water source was switched in 2014, and no accountability was taken by the government until 2016. In North Dakota, the construction of a dangerous pipeline was approved that posed a similar threat to the main water source of the Sioux people and many others. Additionally it was designed to go through sacred burial grounds of the Sioux people. Although on December 4, 2016, the construction at Standing Rock was halted by the Federal government, it took months of resistance and Indigenous people and sacred areas were harmed in the process.  

The syllabus moves to focusing on positionality; it is important because not all groups are equally affected by environmental racism, and many actually benefit from it. We ourselves are three white people focusing on an issue that privileges us, so we think it is important for readers to stop and acknowledge their own positionality as well, especially because environmental racism is actively erased and recreated as an environmental issue instead of something that negatively affects People of Color. We encourage readers to consider how their own identities interact with environmental racism before and while they engage with these readings.

It is important that environmental racism is recognized as a symptom of colonialism, capitalism, and racial segregation. This nation was founded through colonization, which along with environmental racism actively dominates people, land and knowledge. When Europeans colonized what is now the United States, the first groups to suffer under their mission were Africans and Native Americans, so it is no coincidence that Black people and Natives are still oppressed through capitalism and land domination. Capitalism has an inherent disregard for human life and the life of the planet, and creates a vicious cycle of environmental destruction that cannot be broken within the existence of capitalism.

Over time, racist practices and policies have segregated and subjugated different racial groups. This “spatialization of race,” whether through making cities completely segregated or through stealing Natives’ land and then forcing them onto reservations, has allowed for policy to discriminate against racial groups without being explicitly racist.  Environmental racism, like other forms of oppression, is erased through the illusion of equality and the erasure of evidence. Oppression is often perpetuated by people in power telling marginalized people that their oppression isn’t real. What this means is that when the people affected point out systems like racism, they are often told that their experiences aren’t valid or real.

Violence is hugely present in all elements of environmental racism. State violence is used regularly against People of Color within environmental racism, especially to oppress the resistance of it. Physical violence can be further damaging when media and news sources perpetuate violence by telling the story of those in power. Long term results of environmental racism can play into the downwards trajectory and cycle of health problems and state violence against People of Color.

Resistance movements form as a means of survival for People of Color facing the destruction of their basic human rights. Resistance can be made up of online organizing, activism, and the spreading of both primary source knowledge and evidence of oppression. Resistance is ultimately the oppressed rising up against their oppressor. Allies and advocates can support and assist in the movement, but the oppressive system is truly agitated when the most marginalized voices and bodies are centered.


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