Black History Month: Environmental Racism in Chicago and Hazel M Johnson

It’s been a minute since I have even looked at my blog. I started school shortly after the last post and have been incredibly busy with school work, extra curriculars, and job hunting.

But this month is Black History Month and, while it is almost over, I knew that if I wrote anything this month, it would have to be surrounding this topic.

Before I dive into my main topic, I just want to point out a couple of quick things.

In Utah, parents were able to chose to opt out their children from the Black History Month curriculum. Since the story has now gone viral, the Utah school districts have rescinded that option. But this instance brings to light an incredible point. Racism begins at home. What you say behind closed doors, what you whisper, what you chose to ignore/opt out of, is all noticed and is passed on to your children.

Racism begins and spreads at home.

Anyways, let’s begin.

I wanted to spend this blog post talking about an issue that hits close to home: environmental racism in the city of Chicago. For the many of you who are not Chicago natives/residents, after reading this, do a quick google search of “environment racism *your area*” and see what pops up. I’m sure it will be incredibly interesting and eye opening.

The environmental racism in Chicago is pretty well known. Chicago is the third most segregated city in the country as of 2018 according to the Census Bureau. However, most Chicagoans don’t need a formal study to know that. We see it every day. The Northside of the city, where all of the money and resources are, is largely white and affluent. The Southside, where none of the money and resources are, is largely Black and disenfranchised. The Eastside, where the lake is, is, again, very affluent. The Westside is not.

So what even is environmental racism?

First let’s define the environment.

Environmental justice advocates define the environment as anywhere we work, live, and play. Instead of separating ourselves from nature, this definition invites it in. It makes it apart of our community. Because, in this definition, the environment is now central to us, it makes it easier to see how people are affected by it. This is by far my personal favorite definition of the environment.

So, now what is environmental racism?

Environmental racism is the disproportionate effect of environmental hazards on people of color.

(From GreenAction:) Environmental racism refers to the institutional rules, regulations, policies or government and/or corporate decisions that deliberately target certain communities for locally undesirable land uses and lax enforcement of zoning and environmental laws, resulting in communities being disproportionately exposed to toxic and hazardous waste based upon race. Environmental racism is caused by several factors, including intentional neglect, the alleged need for a receptacle for pollutants in urban areas, and a lack of institutional power and low land values of people of color. It is a well-documented fact that communities of color and low-income communities are disproportionately impacted by polluting industries (and very specifically, hazardous waste facilities) and lax regulation of these industries.

Environmental justice, then, is the response to these inequities. There are 17 principles of environmental justice and I invite you to look at them.

How does this all play out in Chicago?

Very poorly.

In January of 2020, the city of Chicago did an air quality study. They found that all over the county, the air quality was not great, but the air quality in the South and West sides of the city was life threatening.

Here is a map of their findings.

Staggering to actually have it visualized, huh?

This map is not an unfamiliar one. Throughout the years, there have been many maps that look the same on a variety of topics. The story always ends up being the same. The Black and Latinx populations living in the South and West sides of the city of Chicago face greater health risks than White populations in other areas of the city.

Environmental injustice has been occurring in Chicago for an extremely long time.

There was one woman who recognized it before most others.

Hazel M. Johnson.

When her husband passed away, young and suddenly, from cancer, Johnson began questioning why there were so many in her area, and other public housing areas in Chicago, experiencing inordinate rates of cancer.

Johnson and her husband lived in Altgeld Gardens, a public housing project on the far south side of Chicago. Its residents are 97% Black.

After researching, Johnson discovered that the area had 50 landfills, hundreds of hazardous waste sites, and underground storage tanks that were leaking. She called the community “the toxic doughnut” as it was completely surrounded by pollution and hazardous materials.

In 1979, Johnson established People for Community Recovery in Chicago, which aimed to help the community understand hazardous waste, demand cleaner environments, test for lead, and strengthen their own personal connection to the environment. Johnson also helped to create the 17 principles of environmental justice, which I linked earlier.

Because Johnson’s background was not science based, the media and politicians often painted her as the “angry Black woman” trope, as they thought she was too uneducated to know what was going on in her own community. Despite all attempts to silence Johnson, she pushed onwards, continuing to organize her community members and advocate for environmental justice.

Hazel’s influence in Chicago, and in the environmental justice fields, is still felt today. However, as seen from that map at the beginning of this post, the South side of Chicago still faces incredibly high rates of pollution. Johnson’s organization People for Community Recovery in Chicago, now led by her daughter, continues to fight for the rights and protections of minority and low income communities from environmental hazards.

Hazel is the mother environmental justice. Throughout her life, she dedicated all of her energy and efforts to the people of Chicago. She paved the way for what environmental justice was able to evolve into. Johnson continues to have such an incredible influence on a community so close to my heart.

3 Replies to “Black History Month: Environmental Racism in Chicago and Hazel M Johnson”

  1. Dear Emily,
    What an eye opener. I had no idea Chicago was in such terrible shape. But then again I’m pretty sure LA is just as bad. Unfortunately money is not used to help and protect, rather to do anything to get more. Until we change that philosophy very little will change. An excellent blog. Thank you for sharing it.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Very excellent, indeed. Sad, but something we all should be made more aware of on a continuing basis. Thank you writing it and posting it so we can read it and become aware.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for sharing this! I live in Canada and as it is Earth Day I have been trying to start conversations with people about environmental racism. In Southern Ontario there is a place infamously known as ‘Chemical Valley’ which is home to around 40 er cent of Canada’s chemical industry. While impacting tens of thousands of people, a 2017 report shoes that people in Aamijiwnaag are disproportionately impacted. Members of this nation experienced skewed birth rates due to pollutants. In the mid 90s the federal census shows that twice as many girls were born than boys due to gender-bending pollutants. Environmental racism is a major issue that people don’t talk about. Thank you for your post!

    Liked by 1 person

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