Skip to content Skip to footer

Water Activists, Your White Privilege Is Showing

White supremacy and white privilege often obscure the racist structures that create water contamination crises.

We are witnessing a national catastrophe: Innocent people are fighting for their lives because officials at all levels have been derelict in their duties to protect Flint, Michigan, residents from environmental harms and have deliberately silenced community voices. Could this Flint toxic water disaster occur anywhere else? Yes, and it is, even in California, where the drought is not the only water crisis.

As a Black woman, I know that battling a white supremacist structure and working to eliminate white privilege from decisions is exhausting. The result sometimes is that communities of color are either silenced by white supremacy, a structure not meant to protect them, or by white privilege, where well-meaning individuals can offer unhelpful solutions for dire problems. In my opinion, the white supremacist structure and white privilege are equally perilous.

I recently read a Washington Post article in which the author denigrated individuals who drink bottled water by calling them wasteful and went as far as to say “tap water faces more rigorous bacteria testing in most cities …” Many people, including the author, probably believe that the biggest issue for communities is access to water and not the enforcement of the Safe Drinking Water Act or other protective laws.

Meanwhile, the city of Flint and the state of Michigan broke federal and state environmental laws for years to save money, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) knew for some time that they were doing it. Most people are in awe. What’s happening in Flint sounds like some horror film. How could a state be so apathetic?

White privilege is rationalizing that a water crisis is not happening in a person’s own backyard.

White supremacy plays a role in deciding which issues are most important. White privilege can cause basic structural issues in communities of color to be ignored. To sit at home and think of bottled water as an option and not a survival mechanism is a privilege. To have community members, instead of emergency managers or regional agencies, making decisions, because of the size of the city is a privilege. White privilege is rationalizing that a water crisis is not happening in a person’s own backyard.

Right now in the Central Valley of California, where I live, millions of individuals are subjected to toxic water and air. They are either exhausted from fighting the white supremacist structure in the environmental justice space or by explaining to individuals with white privilege that the drought is not necessarily the biggest water crisis for millions of people of color and low-income communities in California. We often receive air pollution alerts to stay indoors and water contamination notices. For example, rust-colored tap water containing lead was recently found in homes in Fresno. Local, state and federal officials often make similar arguments to those heard in Flint. Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote, “the air we breathed was toxic, the water stunted our growth, we could not get out” in Between the World and Me, and we agree.

In California’s Central Valley, there are millions of unheard voices because stories don’t make the news.

For example, Allensworth, the oldest town in the state built by Black people, has just 471 residents and 54 percent live below the poverty level. This town just began exploring water treatment plans in the past few years.

In Delano, another majority community of color, residents have demanded their city council drink their tap water because it was filled with nitrates and arsenic. The city council refused to drink it and has not been transparent about how much money it would take to address the numerous water complaints they receive.

In Shafter, another Central Valley community of color, residents are currently facing a boil water alert because their water is unsafe.

The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board is allowing a water waste management facility to spew toxins into groundwater, disregarding the findings of its staff. In many situations, the EPA waits for the state to enforce state and federal environmental laws. Sound familiar?

We see the same trends of environmental racism in the Central Valley that we do in Flint.

In a white supremacist structure, people of color are often ignored. We see the same trends of environmental racism in the Central Valley that we do in Flint and elsewhere around the country. Flint, a majority Black community, was actively denied protections by the state and EPA because they believed residents were overreacting. Black or Latino residents in California are approximately six times more likely to live in communities with high cumulative impact scores, which are environmental hazard measurements. Ninety-two percent of the nearly 2 million people who live within one mile of an oil well in California are people of color. This pattern is frightening.

We live in a system where wealth and color shape outcomes for communities. If people of color are not part of the advocacy and decision-making process, they are removed from the solution. Traditionally, people of color are not part of environmental decisions, and Flint shows us the devastating results of not acknowledging and implementing community-based change.

Not every person who was involved in creating this cataclysm in Flint was white, nor is every person involved with structurally unsound environmental decisions in the Central Valley of California. However, white supremacy and white privilege, on both structural and individual levels, corrupted the investigation and mitigation time for Flint and other cities.

Could Flint happen in a majority white community? Maybe. Would it take years or 9,000 children at risk of lead poisoning to respond? No.

Regardless of who is in power, the infrastructure and symptoms of white privilege and white supremacy are problematic. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has historically fought alongside communities who often have underrepresented voices. Central Valley communities have needs that must not be silenced by well-meaning or ill-advised individuals. When it comes to environmental justice, understanding this structure means also understanding that shaming or ignoring communities can lead to disastrous outcomes.