On the edge of the Mississippi River, just outside of Baton Rouge, La., a county called Iberville Parish lies in a haze of thick pollution. Because the county is part of Louisiana’s so-called Cancer Alley, Iberville residents do not see the sun peeking out of the rolling hills, rather, they see a horizon dominated by dense clouds from the dozens of chemical plants surrounding the small parish. As a result, Iberville’s rate of cancer incidence is 539.8 per 100,000 people in comparison to the broader United States’ average of 442.4 per 100,000 people.
Iberville, a majority-Black county, is just one example of environmental racism, the disproportionate impact of environmental harms and risks on communities of color. This example is particularly important to the Georgetown University community. Some of the Iberville residents experiencing environmental injustice are descendants of the 314 enslaved people sold by the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus in 1838 to plantation owners in Louisiana to finance Georgetown’s debt and keep the university open.
The sale, valued at about $3 million today, is a horrific example of Georgetown’s racist past. In the last several years, the university has sought to rectify the atrocities of its past; recently, Georgetown began contributing to the Descendants Truth and Reconciliation Fund to support descendants of the 314 enslaved people. This foundation spreads its funds through a variety of initiatives such as racial reconciliation and academic support systems. Many descendants have expressed discontent with these initiatives and believe the money would be better spent going to the descendants directly. Given the state of the reconciliation process in conjunction with the environmental conditions in Iberville, the university must also join the fight against environmental racism as its next steps toward reconciliation.
Poor environmental conditions are present across the United States. Whether it be the aforementioned conditions in Iberville, water contamination in Flint, Mich., or toxic oil spills in Houston, the common thread is the fact that marginalized communities bear the worst of these disasters. Researchers Paul Mohai and Robin Saha argue that corporations and government agencies target BIPOC communities as prime locations for landfills or chemical plants because their historical lack of political representation creates a path of least resistance. Racialized zoning laws in the 20th century separated minority groups from white neighborhoods. As a result, many BIPOC communities have been trapped in a vicious cycle in which they become more at risk for high levels of pollution, degraded infrastructure and declines in capital, businesses and services because of long-standing institutional racism.
This cycle of injustice is present in Iberville. There, residents have been breathing PM2.5 particles for years. PM2.5 particles are 100 times thinner than human hair and originate from the chemicals emitted from power plants and automobiles. These particles often damage internal organs and can cause not only premature death from lung or heart disease but also asthma, decreased lung function and other respiratory problems.
As Mohai and Saha contend, areas with undesirable environmental conditions repel new, diverse businesses and, therefore, slow economic growth. In turn, schools begin to lose funding. For instance, North Iberville High School closed after a lack of resources created high dropout rates and low enrollment among students. This closure forced Matthew Mims, a descendant of Isaac Hawkins, who is the first name listed on the 1838 Bill of Sale, to have drive to Plaquemine, La., so he could attend the Math, Science and Arts Academy. Plaquemine, an epicenter of toxic pollution, is one of the most unsafe parts of Iberville Parish. In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s 2014 National Air Toxics Assessment estimated that the people who live in Plaquemine are 95% more likely to contract cancer than other Americans. Mim’s experience of attending school in Plaquemine purely out of necessity shows how dilapidated infrastructure causes people — especially people of color — to involuntarily face pollution and health risks in the pursuit of even the most basic public services.
Georgetown is deeply connected to the environmental injustice the residents of Iberville face, as many of the descendants of the 314 enslaved people live in the parish. The descendant community in Iberville has and will continue to face the negative health consequences of the environmental racism they experience, and Georgetown must commit to rectifying this environmental injustice.
Georgetown can advocate for racial justice by addressing environmental injustice. The university has the power to lead education about this issue as well as to encourage action to resolve it. Given Georgetown’s close ties to the area, it can begin by initiating action in Iberville.
Georgetown could consider requiring a portion of the money it gives the Descendants Truth and Reconciliation Fund to go to combating the effects of environmental justice in Iberville. In addition, in coming discussions with descendants of the GU272, Georgetown must obtain opinions from the descendants themselves and hear firsthand how they are being impacted by the environmental injustice in their communities. From there, the university would have a better understanding of how deep the impact of this 1838 sale was and how it can better allocate its reconciliation funds.
Recognizing and incorporating measures to combat environmental injustice in its reconciliation efforts before more people suffer unacceptable health consequences because of environmental injustice is crucial in the next steps of Georgetown’s reconciliation with its past and with the descendants of the GU272.
Erin Hood is a first-year in the School of Foreign Service. Sustaining the Discussion appears online every other Friday.
Full disclosure: Erin Hood is a former design assistant for The Hoya.