The Slow Poisoning of Black Bodies: A Lesson in Environmental Racism and Hidden Violence
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 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.
Environmental issues are not of ten 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 prof essor 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...