I have very fond memories of the earliest years of my childhood. I spent them in Montclair, NJ, an affluent and predominantly White neighborhood off Bloomfield Ave. It was a beautiful and safe area with a park attached to the neighborhood high school and had a Pathmark right around the corner that we frequented for groceries. There would be days where my brother and I would ride our bikes to that grocery store or run to the park, unbeknownst to our family. We would play with the other children who were there with their parents, saw teenagers playing on the basketball courts while we played tag, and there wasn’t a single threat in sight. This sense of safety and ready accessibility to nature and fresh groceries was the privilege of living in a predominantly White neighborhood. It’s a privilege not afforded to low-income or predominantly Black neighborhoods like my maternal grandmother’s when she was growing up.
My grandma Linda lives in Dothan, Alabama. She moved back to her hometown after having been in New Jersey for over twenty years. She lives near a Walmart that doesn’t have a fresh fruit supply. My grandmother has to drive at least five miles away to the more affluent part of town to shop for her groceries at a Publix or the better-stocked neighborhood Walmart. Even this is a better experience than that of her childhood – she had to walk miles to the nearest grocery store. She shouldn’t have to make these concessions. Her grocery shopping experience should not be more difficult than mine. Her nearest Target is further than the neighborhood Walmart. I have a three minute walk to the nearest Target plaza. I have a five-minute ride to Wegmans in Morrisville. Thankfully, we both have the luxury of living close to walking paths, however, our experiences are different. Grandma has to drive up the street to the nearest baseball park; there is a walking trail attached to my complex and a dog park within the complex. This doesn’t surprise me – I live a short jog away from the nearest golf course. Golf courses are a highlight of the demographics of an area. Martin Luther King Jr., Blvd. Another is the presence of a Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd, which screams: “This is a Black neighborhood!” It’s important to notice that these landmarks and differences reflect the demographics of a community.
For those of you who are unfamiliar, environmental racism falls under the umbrella of systemic racism and it directly affects the environment surrounding a community of people, which inherently affects their health and well being. Most people are aware of the more obvious forms of environmental racism occurring in the world in regards to matters such as the polluted water in Flint, Michigan, which affects Black families in the area in addition to the matter of the Dakota pipeline that affects the lives of Native Americans. These issues, however, can seem so far removed from us because we aren’t there to experience the lasting effects firsthand, because we have clean (enough) air to breathe in addition to clean and hot water to bathe in. This is how I felt prior to watching the clip. I felt sympathy for the victims, but I still felt that it didn’t directly affect me. I was wrong.
Environmental racism is a breeding ground for the mentality that says, “That’s just the way things are”, and stifles the part of us that knows that isn’t how it’s supposed to be. It’s the little things, like landscape maintenance or lack thereof that highlights the overall care for or disinterest in the members of the community being served. I feel the shedding of skin when I leave the concrete jungles of the inner-city, and I feel the ease of breath within higher-income neighborhoods. I know this is because there is more landscaping with trees and other greenery, unlike predominantly Black neighborhoods. It makes me wonder if things will ever really change for the Black community’s good, but I have hope because there are other people like me who are willing, but more able to inform, inspire, and give back to the Black community.
Environmental racism exists around the world. Environmental racism is local. It’s subtle. This may be because we’re all so much a part of it that we don’t recognize environmental racism; it’s like not seeing children grow when you are with them every day – we see the changes when someone else points it out. For folks on the East Coast who live in low-income neighborhoods, environmental racism might mean having to drive seven or more miles to your “local grocery” store. It might mean taking a quick walk to the local bodega to be able to buy overpriced rolls of toilet paper and miniature cereal boxes, at the same time gentrification up the street is driving the real estate market up, while apartment complexes with Whole Foods on the ground floor are being built in the same neighborhood. On the West Coast, environmental racism means the homeless encampments that line the streets of the Tenderloin in San Francisco, a ten minute walk away from the bustling tourist haven of Market Street. When you begin to notice, you have to ask yourself what is happening here. Why are corner stores, liquor stores, fast food outlets and gas stations more accessible, numerous, and expensive in Black and minority neighborhoods? Why are the grocery stores that offer fresh produce in predominantly White areas?
“And I think the biggest takeaway from this is that quality of life and racism are so directly connected”SZA, BAZAAR, Erica Gonzales, Feb. 17, 2021
Many successful Black business owners and celebrities are helping to make Environmental Racism an issue: Queen Latifah, Jaden Smith, and SZA, i.e. According to Nj.com, Latifah is working with GonSosa Development on a housing development project, anchored outside of the city’s downtown, spanning the West and South wards. This would bring more affordable housing back to the area that is quickly gentrifying. Jaden Smith has donated a water filtration system to the residents of Flint, Michigan in response to their water crisis. SZA is partnering with Tazo Tea to bring more awareness to the issue of environmental racism. In a recent interview with HuffPost, SZA mentions that when she was growing up in Camden, Newark, and Irvington, New Jersey, she was always aware of the immediate contrast between the landscaping in areas like Maplewood and the concrete starkness of Irvington.
You can join in these efforts to quell the harmful effects of environmental racism in your own neighborhood. Support Tazo tea in their efforts to raise awareness. Find other ways to stay informed. Visit websites, like We Act. We are not alone in our efforts for social justice. As long as we remain vigilant and active, change will happen. I ask myself: “Why am I almost 30-years old and just now becoming conscious enough to ask these questions? I’m a product of both Black and White neighborhoods. Why didn’t I notice these differences sooner?” I didn’t. It wasn’t apparent to me. It may not have been apparent to you. It’s okay, for you and for me, because we have noticed now. We’re willing to learn. Don’t get weary in your well-doing, my friends!