Black News and Black Views with a Whole Lotta Attitude
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Black News and Black Views with a Whole Lotta Attitude

Why Oil Spills Are a Racial Issue

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Less than a month after the closure of the disastrous Deepwater Horizon oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, a new oil rig explosion just west of BP’s failed well has injured one man.

Early this morning, Vermilion Oil Platform 380, a rig operated by the Houston-based Mariner Energy, exploded, sending 13 workers into the ocean and releasing a plume of black smoke disturbingly reminiscent of the one seen in April above Deepwater Horizon. The extent of the damage beneath the rig, including whether there is an oil leak, is currently unknown.

What we do know is that, anymore, the tragedies an offshore drilling accident can wreak are more than just environmentally and economically impactful, they can also be racially charged.

Consider the following stories, all released in the blackened wake of Deepwater Horizon:

1.      "At peak, hundreds of black fishers occupied [the Gulf region], but their numbers have dwindled. Hurricane Katrina, which entered Louisiana through this region in 2005, retired many fishers early by destroying their boats and homes. Now, the question asked with dread is: Will the BP oil spill finish off what Katrina started: the vanishing of a proud, historic black fisher community?"

2.      "More than half (five out of nine) of the landfills receiving BP oil-spill solid waste are located in communities where people of color comprise a majority of residents living within near the waste facilities.

3.      "Children, pregnant women, people with compromised or stressed immune systems like cancer survivors and asthma sufferers, and African Americans are more at risk from oil and chemical exposure—the latter because they are prone to sickle cell anemia and 2-butoxyethanol can cause, or worsen, blood disorders."

What we can glean from this information, besides the fact that fallout from oil disasters can hit blacks disproportionately hard, is the interconnectivity of modern problems. It's been a long time since American racism was as clearly defined as separate water fountains, something you can point at and say, “That is inherently racist and it should be abolished.” But while the buses are integrated, we've now got entire environmental tragedies that are racist—not intrinsically, of course, but because of the complex behavior that cascades from their nucleuses. Racism didn’t cause the oil spill, but racist decision-making in the days following the leak mutated it into a racial issue, and it's likely to happen again.

African Americans have known this truism for years, but it has yet to really break through to the American mainstream. The result is that while only 11 percent of whites believe racism to be a serious issue, a disproportionate number of black communities on the Gulf have oil seeping into their water tables.

-Cord Jefferson is a staff writer at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.