With Independence Day just around the corner, many Americans are preparing socially-distanced firework launches and reminiscing about brilliant past displays of red, white, and blue. But for kids in the predominantly Black community of Charlton-Pollard, a different kind of firework punctuates their daily lives with dire consequences.
As per reporting by the Intercept, Charlton-Pollard is the site of an ExxonMobil refinery, and the “fireworks” are hazardous flare events. Local children gather to watch as flames from smokestacks down the street erupt into what they call “smelly belches of fire.” As the sky lights up, strong, sickening odors of rotten eggs consume the street while neighbors, including Rebecca Thibeaux, suffer intense sudden headaches, runny noses, and tearing eyes.
At the same time, Rebecca is battling endometrial cancer and serious heart problems, likely linked to the 135 toxic chemicals pumped out by the refinery including several known carcinogens. Yet she cannot afford to leave these dumping grounds. Residents cannot leave Charlton-Pollard because the refinery has damaged the value of their homes. Many people, primarily poor people and people of color, simply cannot afford to live elsewhere. As a consequence, Rebecca and her neighbors remain chained to their fates as sacrifices to the business of Exxon and the fossil fuel industry.
Rebecca’s story is just one of millions.
The fossil fuel industry often profits at the expense of Black and brown communities like Charlton-Pollard around the country and world. Burning fossil fuels not only accelerates our climate crisis, which will bring greatest harm to low-income and minority communities; it also exploits communities of color and sentences them to suffer disproportionate burdens from toxic wastes and harmful health impacts. Yet Princeton University—alongside other high-profile institutions proclaiming to fight climate change and racial injustice—maintains financial relationships with companies at the root of the problem, primarily (but not exclusively) via investments from its roughly $26 billion endowment. Accordingly, Princeton perpetuates systems that oppress marginalized communities, costing lives, livelihoods, and communities.
The National Academy of Sciences recently published that air pollution can cause up to 5.55 million excess and premature deaths every year. Much of this pollution comes from power plants. They churn out poisonous gases, pollutants, and particulate matter, which can obstruct breathing; irritate the lungs; exacerbate asthma, coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath; and worsen general lung function. All these effects are part of what some people are calling the new Jim Crow: environmental racism.
Data shows that pollution from fossil fuel-burning power plants disproportionately harms people in marginalized communities. 68% of African Americans live in danger zones—within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant—and experience the maximum effects of smokestack plumes. In comparison, only about 56% of the white population live in such areas. These racial disparities have become especially clear with the impact of the pandemic; air pollution from fossil fuels has made marginalized communities especially vulnerable to suffering COVID-19 complications. Around the country, too many Black and brown lives have been sacrificed to the fossil fuel industry.
It’s not a coincidence that many African Americans live near oil and gas development. A pioneering 1987 report on hazardous waste sites reported: “racial and ethnic communities have been and continue to be beset by poverty, unemployment and problems related to poor housing, education and health. These communities cannot afford the luxury of being primarily concerned about the quality of their environment when confronted by a plethora of pressing problems related to their day-to-day survival.” This systemic oppression, in addition to historical policies like redlining that institutionalized housing discrimination, makes racial and ethnic communities especially vulnerable to exploitation by the fossil fuel industry.
Think of Cancer Alley in Louisiana, now known as “Death Alley” because “so many Black folks have died from the poison that drives our extractive economy,” as reported by Hop Hopkins. In the South Side of Chicago, where Hop used to live, people still struggle with pollution-related diseases—lingering effects from when the area used to be the dumping ground for fossil fuel byproducts.
Hop reflects on these environmental injustices as follows: “If we valued everyone’s lives equally, if we placed the public health and well-being of the many above the profits of a few, there wouldn’t be a climate crisis. There would be nowhere to put a coal plant, because no one would accept the risks of living near such a monster if they had the power to choose.”
In addition to stripping people of their power, the fossil fuel industry has silenced their voices. From 2015 to 2019, the industry has lobbied heavily for 116 bills proposed to suppress protest rights in state legislatures. These actions seek to silence not just the voices of people fighting for their lives in pollution-burdened communities. They aim to silence the Black Lives Matter movement as we push for broader social justice.
Meanwhile, decades of environmental racism have made marginalized communities feel absolutely powerless. “It’s not like anything any of us do or say will stop them,” says Rebecca from Charlton-Pollard.
And it’s not that they haven’t tried.
Two decades ago, Charlton-Pollard residents had submitted a formal complaint to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), through a process that requires preliminary reports within 200 days. However, the residents of Charlton-Pollard, a community that is 95% Black, were never consulted and were simply left waiting. The result? 17 years later, the EPA sent a letter proposing two community meetings and a single air monitor. Now, ExxonMobil is working to expand the refinery into the largest in the United States. This expansion will only bolster the systemic oppression of Charlton-Pollard, like so many other predominantly Black neighborhoods around the country.
On June 27th, Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber recognized the University’s place in this systemic oppression when he announced the Princeton Board of Trustees’s decision to finally remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from the residential college and School of Public and International Affairs, five years after the Black Justice League’s initial call for action and among sustained activism since. He noted that “Princeton is part of an America that has too often disregarded, ignored, or excused racism, allowing the persistence of systems that discriminate against Black people.” While the removal of Wilson’s name is a meaningful first step, it does not change the reality that Princeton University, with its $26 billion endowment, continues to aid and abet the fossil fuel industry in perpetuating environmental racism.
As President Eisgruber has asserted: “We all have a responsibility to stand up against racism, wherever and whenever we encounter it.” We all have a responsibility to stand up against ExxonMobil. We all have a responsibility to stand up against the fossil fuel industry and its active practices of environmental racism and racial injustice.
In past weeks, we have seen a surge of protests over police brutality against Black Americans. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed severe systemic racial disparities that bring greatest harm to Black and brown communities. Amid discussions about race in the United States, conversations about environmental racism have intensified. President Eisgruber has called on the campus community to “as[k] how we can do our part to confront racism honestly and effectively,” and to “examine all aspects of this institution—from our scholarly work to our daily operations—with a critical eye and a bias toward action.” Any effective confrontation of racism must go deeper than day-to-day actions to address Princeton’s place at the root of the problem.
As Dean Jill Dolan and Vice President Rochelle Calhoun have recognized, “only systemic and far-reaching structural change will finally eradicate racism and all of its tragic manifestations in our country.” They have urged “the University, through its teaching and research missions, [to] actively engage this moment of anguish and anger.”
However, it isn’t just a moment. For racialized and marginalized communities around the world, it is a centuries-long crisis that has, for too long, gone unaddressed. It is time for us to acknowledge and actively combat the systemic racism rooted in our society and our university institution. It is time for Princeton to deeply demonstrate that Black Lives Matter, to stand with the movement and create long-lasting change through fossil fuel divestment, towards racial justice.
Princeton previously acknowledged similar obligations when divesting from Apartheid, a system of legislation that upheld segregationist policies against non-white citizens of South Africa. Its decision stated that divestiture should occur “when such action seems required to prevent the University from being associated as a stockholder with a company whose behaviour has been found to represent, in substantial degree, a clear and serious conflict with central values of the University.” Additionally, the Resource Committee allows making political statements when “advocat[ing] on behalf of policies that directly affect our core activities of research and education,’ such as the ‘right of colleges and universities to pursue racial and ethnic diversity.’”
Meanwhile, BP—a company that had helped fuel Apartheid by selling fossil fuel supplies to the South African military and police force—now funnels over $43 million into Princeton’s “independent” research. Moreover, the extraction, storage, transport, burning and export of fossil fuels harm the goal of racial and ethnic diversity at Princeton: Black and brown people—including past, present, and future students—have suffered, and will continue to suffer, the greatest impacts of both climate change and environmental racism.
Therefore, we of the student movement Divest Princeton ask President Eisgruber, the Resources Committee, and the rest of the University to stand with us in solidarity. It is impossible for the University to stand for justice when teaching and research are funded by Exxon, BP, and other fossil fuel companies that perpetuate environmental racism. We ask you to stand with us, and to stand up against the injustices embedded in the fossil fuel industry.