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Racial demographics play a part in pollution levels, expert says

Feb 12, 2016

Guy Williams and Lester Graham
Credit Mercedes Mejia / Michigan Radio

Correction for the audio interview: 48217 is the most polluted ZIP code in Michigan (as stated), but the Delray neighborhood is in the neighboring ZIP code. It is the second most polluted.

The Flint water crisis has brought attention to a larger issue: why do we see more contamination and pollution issues in areas where poor people and, often, people of color live?

Flint’s water is just the tip of the iceberg. Flint has been an industrial city for generations, and still suffers from the lingering pollution left behind by over a century’s worth of factories. Much of the city’s housing was built using lead-based products like paint.

Guy Williams is the president and CEO of Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice. He tells us DWEJ is responding to the crisis by recognizing the unprecedented level of attention it's bringing to Flint’s infrastructure issues.

“Even though it’s such a horrible circumstance, it’s really great to see the positive and strong reaction to be helpful and supportive and to have the right thing done there,” he says. “You might call it a halo effect where the heightened awareness will have beneficial impact on the issues we serve.”

Williams’ organization uses the term “environmental justice,” but he explains that what we’re really talking about is “environmental racism.”

“Just look at the data – the data that’s been done over the decades since the ‘80s on through to now – in every case, the dominant variable shows race as a variable, as opposed to poverty levels or anything of that sort, that indicate who’s being poisoned the most. It’s people of color as opposed to white people, the dominant people nationwide,” Williams says.

Guy Williams tells us more about Flint’s struggles and his organization’s work toward environmental justice in our conversation above.