Rose Augustine, born in 1936, leaned toward me and said, “I always lived on the Southside, the part of Tucson that is Mexican American. In 1985 a newspaper reporter did a series on water contamination on the Southside. The Hughes Missile Systems, now Raytheon, had dumped their toxic waste here. Trichlorethane, TCE. It causes gene mutations and almost everybody I knew was sick.
“One day my friend Marie called me and said, ‘Rose, go pick up the newspaper. Read the story about contamination and call me. Read it carefully.’
“I was washing that day, so she called me three times before I went to the store and bought the paper. Then I said, ‘Oh, my God. Now I know what happened to us. . .’ I started reading about all these sick people I know. Then Marie told me people were going to have a meeting to discuss the newspaper articles.”
Rose went and was elected leader. She said, “I didn’t ask for it. I wasn’t out to make a name for myself. It’s just that my children were all sick, and I was just angry and I wanted to fight back. How can this be allowed when we trusted our government?”
They had another meeting, expecting maybe forty people to come. Nine thousand came. Rose was overwhelmed. “Through it all,” she says, “I asked people why they thought this was happening, and they answered, ‘Because we are Mexican’s, that’s why.’”
What Rose and her community were experiencing is often called “environmental racism.” This includes choices about where to locate such hazards as waste site dumps, wastewater systems, and wastewater run-offs. The people in such locations are usually poor and often include people of color.
Rose’s community’s pollution might have been the result of deliberate or intentional racism on Hughes Missile’s part, but such situations also are the consequence of structural racism. This is racism built right into institutions so that members of society participate in it even if they have tolerant attitudes. Such structures are part of our government, economy, and religious and cultural systems.
Robert Slayton, a history professor at Chapman University, talks about a study to be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences. In that study, the authors polled “subjects using pictures of Barack Obama where his skin color had been alternatively lightened and darkened.” The subjects were then asked which image depicted his ‘true essence.’ “The study found that those who chose the lighter images were also more likely to have voted for him for president, with the reverse equally true.”
Rose Augustine continued to speak, “Our group (against the TCE dumping) was invited to the Southwest Organizing Project. I was prepared to tell them this whole story about Tucson, and I just sat there with my mouth wide open. The same toxic dumping was happening in other parts of the country. It was all communities of color. My story was everybody’s story. African Americans, Asians, and Mexican communities. Native Americans. All were there. I was dumbfounded.”
As I search for the multiple causes of structural racism, such as forms of economic exploitations that have been built into the fabric and history of our nation, I need to look at the ways my relatively easy life benefits from such inequities. What comforts do I need to examine? How do I react to the fact that poor people and people of color are often considered disposable?