In the weeks following the events in Charlottesville, and in our country’s continuing political climate of confusion, fear and frustration, I have been thinking a lot about the role I play as part of the problem.
I keep reading that those of us who are white need to face our own white supremacy. And even though I am confident that I’m not a white supremacist, I have tried to be brutally honest with myself: How am I making this worse?
When I moved to Detroit two and a half years ago, it was immediately clear that the playing field is not level for the people of color living in this city. There is an unfairness that is structural, a disadvantage that is woven into the fabric our communities that existed long before I arrived.
Through grassroots organizing with Detroit Jews for Justice, I have begun to unpack some of the ways I can work to stop unconscious contributions to the racial inequity that riddles the Detroit Metropolitan area. One part of the problem I never before considered was this: how I dispose of my trash.
At the intersection of I-94 and I-75, on the residential near east side of Detroit, stands the world’s largest municipal trash incinerator. If you’re driving that way, it’s hard to miss; but what you won’t see is the nitrogen-oxide, sulphur-dioxide, carbon-monoxide, lead and particulate matter the incinerator emits into the atmosphere. These substances are toxic to human health and are particularly risky to the health of children. And we’re not talking about a small number of people being affected. Within one mile of the incinerator, there are 7,280 residents, including 1,544 children.
According to a 2013 study by the state of Michigan, children in Detroit are being hospitalized for asthma at a rate almost three times greater than in the rest of the state. In the last two years, “Detroit Renewable Power” (Don’t be fooled by the incinerator’s new name as of 2010. Nice name or not, it’s a toxic facility.) has violated the Clean Air Act close to 400 times and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has reacted to only six of these violations with fines equivalent to a slap on the wrist.
The fact is, if you live in the region, odds are good that your trash is being schlepped to Detroit and burned in a giant incinerator. Poor communities of color are being forced to breathe in the toxins produced and the state isn’t doing anything substantive to stop it. This, I’ve learned, is a textbook case of environmental racism: We dump our trash and get to forget about it. Communities downwind of the incinerator, who often do not have the resources to get up and move, are not so lucky. We want to believe that pollution affects all of us equally. This, unfortunately, is not the case.
So, what do we do? We have all felt a call to action in recent months. We want to do the anti-racist, anti-fascist work that is needed in this political moment. We want to dismantle the institutional racism that we became a part of without our consent. If you’re a Detroit resident, it’s time to put pressure on Mayor Mike Duggan. He recently made a commitment to the environment by signing on to the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement. Yet he allows Metro Detroit’s trash to be burned in the center of the city, in a manner that repeatedly violates the Clean Air Act. As Detroiters, it is our responsibility to call Duggan’s office and let him know that ending the city’s contract with the incinerator is a basic prerequisite to making Detroit a greener, healthier city.
If you live outside of the city, there are a few things you can do: First, find out where your trash is going. You might be surprised to find that despite a considerable distance from Detroit, your trash is still being burned there. Contact your local government and let them know that this is an assault on justice. Tell them you wouldn’t want your children to breathe in these toxins, and the children of Detroit deserve the same.
In the meantime, carefully consider what you put in your trash. Remove all plastic and metal to be recycled. Burning plastic creates extremely toxic fumes in the air, and Detroit Renewable Power will remove any metal and sell it. Don’t give them that money. Composting is another way to lighten our personal burden on the system. Look into community gardens that will accept your compost or consider investing in a compost set up in your own yard. It will do wonders for your plants and will cut down on your trash going to the incinerator.
There is so much going on that needs our attention in the realm of racial justice that we sometimes feel like we need to put the environment aside. The fact is, environmental justice is racial justice. This is how we take a step toward confronting our white supremacy and making this whole region more conscious of it.
Allison Zeff is an elementary music teacher, Hamtramck resident and active leader with Detroit Jews for Justice and If Not Now Detroit.