The Slow Poisoning of Black Bodies:A Lesson in Environmental Racism and Hidden Violence
The first half of this piece is an essay exploring environmental racism through the lens of the lead poisoning of Freddie Gray. The essay outlines some details of Gray’s lead poisoning and gives background and examples of how environmental degradation and exposure to toxins disproportionately affects people of color and the poor. The author argues that justice cannot be had while ignoring environmental racism, as unjust environmental conditions devalue Black bodies and the potential of Black and poor children worldwide. The second half of this piece contains a lesson plan for teachers to use along with this essay in high school and college classrooms. The lesson further explores definitions and examples of environmental racism, and asks students to research current cases of environmental injustice, use creative and analytical writing to reflect on what they’ve learned, and work with local community members to address an issue of environmental racism.
Introduction: The Slow Poisoning of Freddie Gray and the Hidden Violence against Black Communities
The life of Freddie Gray, and of so many others, was endangered many times over by numerous forms of systemic racism before it was finally taken while Gray was in the custody of police—an event that sparked protests in his hometown of Baltimore. Among these forms of endangerment was [End Page 189] the lead that poisoned him as a child. Reports indicate that Freddie Gray, like too many children—especially children of color and those living in poverty—experienced significant exposure to lead as a child (Marbella 2015a). In 2008, Gray’s family filed a lawsuit against Stanley Rochkind, the owner of a home they rented for four years, arguing that their children’s exposure to lead “played a significant part in their educational, behavioral and medical problems,” according to reports (Collins 2015).
In six tests conducted between 1992 and 1996, Freddie Gray and his siblings had lead levels between 11 micrograms per deciliter and 19 micrograms per deciliter, according to an article citing court documents (Marbella 2015b). Those levels of lead in Gray’s blood far exceeded the upper limit of five micrograms per deciliter deemed safe by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Extensive research has demonstrated that childhood lead exposure can cause lifelong and very serious developmental, cognitive, medical, and psychological issues (NCHH n.d.). These harmful effects can happen from the womb, even at low levels of exposure. Researchers point out that exposure to lead and other environmental toxins can have significant effects on the developing brains of babies, even at levels far lower than those that would be toxic to adults (Hamblin 2014).
Thus, as we examine the problems of systemic racism, economic injustice, and state misconduct, we should be careful not to leave out hidden forms of violence, including environmental injustice.
Exposure to environmental toxins is extremely widespread. Children’s health advocates Philippe Grandjean and Philip Landrigan told The Atlantic: “Our very great concern … is that children worldwide are being exposed to unrecognized toxic chemicals that are silently eroding intelligence, disrupting behaviors, truncating future achievements and damaging societies” (quoted in Hamblin 2014). This poisonous lead exposure, and the possible developmental harm it causes, is just one example of the invisible violence inflicted on so many individuals through absorption of environmental toxins and through other harmful and unequal environmental conditions. [End Page 190]
Environmental issues are not often described in terms of violence, at least not violence against humans. But the environmental injustice that slowly poisons people of color and poor individuals and deprives them of access to healthy food and healthy living environments in the United States and globally is, in my view, most certainly a form of violence. Rob Nixon, a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, calls this type of harm to vulnerable populations “slow violence” (Nixon 2013). Environmental injustice may seem like a secondary issue in the face of massive police brutality, poverty, and civil uprising, and I don’t suggest that it should preempt conversations about other forms of systemic racism. But as we talk about the devaluing of Black lives and Black bodies that has taken place in Baltimore and across the country and the world, we cannot ignore the ways that this manifests in a subtle and constant disregard for the health of marginalized communities (Peeler-Ringer 2013).
Lead poisoning may sound like a small issue or one that is primarily in the past, but this is not the case. It is a far-too common event in many regions in the United States (KidsHealth 2015). Combined with this are conditions in which Black and poor individuals often have limited access to fresh food and green space (USDA n.d.; Johns Hopkins 2012; Zhou and Kim 2013). Their communities also experience disproportionate proximity to garbage incinerators, factories, and other sources of toxic emissions, according to a number of studies from academics, advocacy groups, and government agencies (Clark, Millet, and Marshall 2014; “Environmental Justice/Environmental Racism” 2016; United States General Accounting Office 1983; Lurie 2014).
Freddie Gray serves as an example of the issue of food deserts as well; he lived in a community with limited access to fresh food, as do one in five residents of Baltimore City and one in four school-aged children in Baltimore (USDA n.d.). Research also indicates that “in areas where residents are almost entirely white, there is 11 times more green space than areas where more than 40% of residents are black, Asian or minority ethnic” (GreenLINK 2011, 21). And while class and income level play into these types of environmental injustice, race remains a major factor (Downey 1998). [End Page 191]
Outside the United States, we see these same phenomena playing out among many poor and non-white populations. And this inequity is exaggerated even further when we consider that those populations most affected by climate change are likely to be poor, predominantly Black and Brown communities (Vidal 2013). Indeed, many have argued that the delay among wealthy nations to significantly curb climate change is motivated by a lack of interest in or respect for the lives of people of color (Klein 2014).
Issues of systemic racism like widespread poverty and police brutality deserve much more attention than white America has given them. I don’t wish to draw any attention away from these issues, or from a full examination of police misconduct in cases like Gray’s and many others. But to fully demand any justice for Freddie Gray and other victims of systemic violence, we have to reject all forms of systemic racism, including the subtle but devastating forms of environmental racism (Energy Justice Network 2016). Freddie Gray’s life ended violently and tragically in the custody of police. This tragedy, and so many others like it, must be answered for. But the tragedies of Gray’s life started long before this, not only with underfunded schools, income inequality, and myriad egregious denials of institutional support for his community, but also with the slow theft of his potential caused by his exposure to toxins like lead.
The United States is denying huge numbers of Black and Brown children their chance to achieve untold levels of cognitive potential by quietly poisoning them. This denial is then compounded by deeply unequal educational opportunities. And, finally, their civil rights are disregarded as well. Addressing any one piece of this picture while leaving the others in place guarantees continued injustice. Saying that #BlackLivesMatter means that Black bodies and minds matter. It means that it matters when police kill Black people, and it also means that it matters when Black individuals are slowly and invisibly stripped of their health.
A version of this article was originally published by The Conversation on May 2, 2015, under a Creative Commons License: https://theconversation.com/the-slow-poisoning-of-freddie-gray-and-the-hidden-violence-against-black-communities-41072. [End Page 193]
Lesson Plan: Understanding Environmental Racism and Hidden Violence
Grade Level and Disciplinary Connections: This lesson is suitable for high school and college students from ninth grade through undergraduate. Relevant subject areas in which it could be taught include: English/Language Arts, Social Studies, History, Political Science, and Cultural Studies.
Over the course of this unit students will:
1. Gain knowledge of the meaning and implications of environmental racism;
2. Identify and critique social structures that contribute to environmental injustices;
3. Analyze the physical, emotional, psychological, and societal impacts of environmental racism;
4. Demonstrate empathy in exploring the experiences of individuals affected by environmental racism;
5. Gain detailed knowledge of a local issue of environmental injustice;
6. Reflect creatively on potential actions that could correct environmental injustices;
7. Conduct original research; and
8. Compose original analytical and creative writing. [End Page 194]
Lesson Components at a Glance
1. Lesson is introduced to students.
2. Students read “The Slow Poisoning of Black Bodies,” the essay above. Students then write reflection papers and discuss in class.
3. Students read about lead poisoning, environmental toxins, and environmental racism.
4. Students read about food deserts and climate justice.
5. Students conduct a case study and present it in class.
6. Students read poetry and do a creative writing assignment.
7. Students do a final project oriented toward their local community.
Lesson One : Getting Started
This lesson explores environmental racism and forms of hidden violence experienced by people of color and other exploited groups. As the instructor, remember that environmental racism is well-documented in the United States and globally. Marginalized groups, including people of color, low-income families, and people in less industrialized countries, commonly experience disproportionately negative effects of industrial pollution and environmental degradation.
Your approach to the materials in this lesson will vary depending on the background and experiences of the students. If you are working with students who have experienced environmental racism firsthand, one of your major goals should be to help these students name their experiences and identify the cultural forces that have produced them. If you’re working with students from more privileged backgrounds, especially white students, you may find that a major focus of your efforts will be simply to help your students realize that environmental racism is indeed a reality. Often students who come from a place of privilege will respond with defensiveness or disbelief when faced with the truth of environmental racism. It’s important to help students learn to think beyond the level of individual behavior and instead think critically about systemic processes and imbedded cultural values and beliefs that can be hidden below the surface but that help shape social structures and priorities. Help students [End Page 195] to think of themselves as social scholars and as allies in an ongoing effort for justice, and help them recognize that identifying structural problems within society isn’t about personal guilt or an attack on their way of life, it is about creating the opportunity to make society better and more just in the future.
To begin this lesson, ask students some or all of the following questions to get them thinking about the topics they’ll be reading about. Feel free to adjust these questions to best suit the background of your students:
1. What do you know about lead paint?
2. Do you know if you’ve ever been exposed to lead paint? What factors do you think would increase someone’s risk of being exposed to lead paint?
3. Where is the closest garbage incinerator to your home? Where is the closest landfill? Do you think a garbage incinerator or landfill would be likely to be built near your home at some point in the future? Why or why not?
4. Where is the nearest grocery store to your home? Do you have a way to get fresh groceries easily?
5. If you were a different race or ethnicity, or your family had a different income level, do you think your answers to these questions might be different?
6. How do governments and businesses decide things like where to build a landfill or a grocery store? How do they decide what levels of chemicals are safe? Who plays a role in making those decisions, and who stands to gain from them?
Discuss these questions with your students. You may also want to review some basic background of the Freddie Gray case, if students aren’t familiar with the details or have forgotten them. For some information about Freddie’s Gray’s death, try “The 45-Minute Mystery of Freddie Gray’s Death,” by Kevin Rector (2015).
Lesson Two : “The Slow Poisoning of Black Bodies”
Next have students read “The Slow Poisoning of Black Bodies,” the essay above. To help them process their initial reactions to the piece, ask them to write reflection papers. These can take a form that you already use in your classroom, whether a formal typed reaction paper or a post to an online discussion board or a double-entry journal. For an in-depth example of [End Page 196] a reflection paper assignment and more discussion of the pedagogical benefits and uses of such writing assignments, see Teaching for EcoJustice (Turner 2015).
Once students have written reflection papers, discuss the essay in class. Ask students to share their reactions, the parts they found most surprising or interesting, and any questions or parts that confused them. If students have any personal experiences that they can relate to the information in the essay and are comfortable sharing those experiences, encourage them to do so. If students have never experienced environmental racism, have never lived in a food desert or worried about lead poisoning, ask them to imagine what it would be like to grow up facing these experiences. Note: always assume that there are students in your class with these experiences, and avoid speaking to the entire class as if the universal experience of all students is one of privilege and lack of firsthand understanding of environmental injustice.
Throughout your discussion it’s important to continue reminding students to consider the underlying cultural values that help produce the circumstances discussed in this article. Environmental racism is not about individual people intentionally poisoning people of color or the poor; rather, it is part of the larger processes of structural racism and exploitation that arise from cultural “logics of domination.” These naturalized “logics of domination” allow those in power to explicitly or implicitly claim superiority over people of color, women, the poor, nonhuman animals, and the land, and in so doing treat oppressed groups as less valuable. I encourage connecting this lesson with a more in-depth exploration of such culturally-constructed hierarchized thinking. If you’d like to add some readings on logics of domination to this lesson, consider: Ecofeminist Philosophy by Karen Warren (2000), pages 21–38, and the two-page section “Language, Dualism, and Hierarchized Thinking” in EcoJustice Education, by Rebecca Martusewicz, Jeff Edmundson, and John Lupinacci (2015), pages 64–65.
Lesson Three : Environmental Racism and Toxic Conditions
Now that students have read and discussed “The Slow Poisoning of Black Bodies,” you’ll be helping them learn more about the specific issues raised in the essay. First have students read the following pieces. Feel free to reduce or expand this reading list depending on the needs and skills of your specific students: [End Page 197]
• “Anatomy of Environmental Racism” (Bullard 2000)
• “The Toxins That Threaten Our Brains” (Hamblin 2014)
• “Lead Poisoning” (KidsHealth 2016)
• “This Is How Racist Your Air Is” (Lurie 2014)
• One or more readings from “Environmental Justice / Environmental Racism” (Energy Justice Network 2016)
• Video: “Chester Environmental Justice” (CSTR 2008)
• Optional: “Race, Waste, and Class: New Perspectives on Environmental Justice” (Heiman 1996)
• Optional: “Environmental Racism Is Consistent across Economic Classes” (Smith 2014)
• Optional: Issue Brief: Childhood Lead Exposure and Educational Outcomes (NCHH n.d.)
Discuss these readings in class. Ask students to think critically about the political and social systems that lead to these circumstances, about who is most affected, and about who benefits. You may also choose to have students write a second reflection paper in response to these readings.
Lesson Four : More Aspects of Environmental Justice : Food and Climate
Next students will explore issues raised in the later portion of the essay above, including the concept of “food deserts” in which residents of a region do not have access to fresh food, and global inequities that have begun to play out related to climate change. Have students read the following pieces:
•. Unsustainable: A Primer for Global Environmental Justice (Hossay 2006), pages 1–41
•. “Climate Change Will Hit Poor Countries Hardest, Study Shows” (Vidal 2013)
•. “When Slow Violence Sprints” (Harvard University Press 2013)
•. Definition of a Food Desert (USDA n.d.)
•. “New, Improved ‘Food Desert’ Map” (Johns Hopkins 2012)
Discuss these readings in class. Again, encourage students to think critically about the social systems that have led to these circumstances, [End Page 198] about who is most affected, and about who benefits. You may also choose to have students write another reflection paper in response to these readings.
Lesson Five : Environmental Racism Case Study
Students have now read and discussed a number of examples of environmental injustices. Follow this by having them study an individual example in more depth. Give students the following assignment (feel free to expand or adjust to meet your students’ needs). You may choose to have students work on this assignment individually, or in pairs or groups.
Think about the examples of environmental racism we’ve read about and discussed in class. Now research another current instance of environmental injustice beyond those we’ve read about. Do some initial research into any of the sorts of environmental racism we read about, or others—lead poisoning, exposure to toxins, air pollution, food deserts, access to green space, climate justice, and so forth. Next, select one specific case of a community or individual who has been affected by some form of environmental racism. This can be in the United States or elsewhere in the world. It could be a group fighting to keep a landfill from being built next to their homes, or a neighborhood with unusually high asthma or cancer rates, or a country that will face disproportionately greater flooding and storms from climate change and does not have the resources to recover from them. Research this case: look at news coverage, related data, even contact a representative of the affected group if possible and appropriate. Then put together a presentation in which you describe the details of the situation. Who has been or will be affected? Who is creating the situation or causing the harm? Who benefits? You will present your case study in class and submit both the presentation and an accompanying script with all research properly cited.
Lesson Six : Creative Writing Reflection
At this point students should have gained some strong knowledge of the cultural and structural processes at work in environmental racism and their effects on the lives of people of color and other vulnerable populations. Seeing the impact of this “slow violence” on people’s lives can be both infuriating and heartbreaking. To help students continue to process their [End Page 199] emotions, next have them read poetry that explores these issues. Here are some recommended poems; feel free to expand this list:
•. “That God Made” (Heford 2003)
•. “Earth Chorus” (Herrera 2003)
•. “To Bless the Memory of Tamir Rice” (Jaji, forthcoming)
•. “Sharks” (Quintana 2001)
•. “Don’t Tell Me Not to Bother You” (Brugnaro 2001)
Discuss these poems with your students. Explore specific lines and details, and make connections to the other materials they’ve read in this unit. Next have students write their own poetry or other creative writing piece. This could be a short story, or even piece that combines text with visual art.
Write a poem or short story that responds to the materials we’ve read in class so far and expresses some of your own thoughts and reactions to everything we’ve discussed. Be creative, but also make use of some specific insights and details from the texts we’ve read. You can write this piece from your own perspective, or you can imagine the perspective of someone else affected by these issues.
Lesson Seven : Final Project
To wrap up this unit, ask your students to complete a final project. The details of your final project assignment will necessarily vary depending on your location, timeframe, resources, and students. I encourage you, if possible, to have students connect with a local issue of environmental justice in your region for their final project. If a local organization or advocacy group is fighting against pollution or new toxic construction, or experiencing high levels of certain health problems, or there are food deserts near you, consider connecting with the group or individuals working on the issue. Make sure you and your students listen to the needs and interests of those individuals if you work with them, and respect their perspectives. I encourage you to build this relationship carefully over multiple semesters or years, or utilize relationships you or your students already have. Since I’m leaving this assignment open to be modified to your own context, I’ll remind you that whatever you develop for the final project can and should be something you build toward earlier in the semester with [End Page 200] relevant readings, and ideally can be ongoing from one class or semester to the next. If you work with any organization or individuals, make sure you and your students listen to the needs and interests of those individuals and respect their perspectives. Ask them what your students could contribute that would be helpful, whether it be research or publicity or an innovative approach to gaining public support or political visibility. Possibilities include researching the current political regulations and relevant business interests at stake and provide a report, creating a documentary about the situation to share with the public, developing a collaborative art project with children or community members in the region, proposing new legislation, or creating a media campaign. Whatever it is, it should be guided by the needs of your partners. If working with a local organization or local issue doesn’t work out for your particular class, consider having students do general research on area food deserts, identify the location of all landfills and incinerators within a hundred miles, or research lead paint regulations and exposure rates in your city or county.
Students should come away from this lesson thinking deeply about how and why as a society we allow the slow and quiet poisoning of certain individuals and communities, and of the land that supports us. Support students in thinking in ways that are both critical and compassionate and lead them toward finding creative solutions for a more just future.
The following evaluation criteria can serve as a guide in assessing students’ performance and achievement of lesson objectives. Written assignments, case studies, final projects, and in-class discussions can all be used to evaluate student performance.
1. Student demonstrates understanding of the concept and process of environmental racism, and the social forces that produce conditions of environmental injustice. [End Page 201]
2. Student demonstrates critical thinking about how to address social and environmental justice issues for marginalized communities in the United States and globally.
3. Student demonstrates knowledge of a local issue of environmental justice and its implications for people in the affected neighborhood or community.
4. Student demonstrates empathy and imagination in considering the experiences of those affected by environmental racism.
5. Student demonstrates critical analysis of the arguments made by assigned authors, how these arguments play out in their lived experiences, and the relevance of these arguments to social and environmental justice.
6. Student uses creative writing to reflect on personal experiences.
7. Work demonstrates thorough reading and comprehension of assigned course texts.
8. Work demonstrates personal reflection, critical thought, and insight into course texts.
9. Arguments are clear, well-developed, and documented with evidence from texts.
10. Work demonstrates critical analysis of course topics, questions, and subject matter.
11. Style, usage, format, grammar, imagery, and presentation support meaning and are intentional, creative, and original.
12. Work meets all requirements of the assignment and is utilized to facilitate development of personal understanding.
Rita Turner, Ph.D., is a Lecturer at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, where she studies the cultural roots of environmental and social problems and develops curricula to analyze these cultural roots through education. She received her Ph.D. in Language, Literacy, and Culture from the University of Maryland Baltimore County in 2011. Prior to her graduate studies, Turner taught high school English in a Baltimore City public school and ran a national nonprofit environmental advocacy organization for high school and college students. She is a resident of Baltimore City, where she also works on issues of food justice, environmental racism, and urban agroecology, and she is the author of Teaching for EcoJustice: Curriculum and Lessons for Secondary and College Classrooms.