When we hear "environmental racism," those of us who are familiar with the term often think of a toxic waste dump opening up in a lower-income, non-white community.
But our environments are actually everything around us: our neighborhoods, our homes, our schools, our workplaces, our streets and parks and transportation systems, our public services. So to see environmental racism, you need not see pools of toxic waste.
Environmental racism is also the failure to provide resources to some neighborhoods that are available in other areas. Environmental racism is what we have when the same neighborhoods are consistently targeted for cuts in basic resources. It's being a child in a neighborhood with no parks, no playgrounds, no school, no library, no community center, nothing to do but find other ways to amuse yourself.
In Colorado Springs, there are disparities in the availability of basic resources to the different neighborhoods. Some have limited public transportation; those same neighborhoods tend to be the ones without other amenities like full-size grocery stores or public libraries.
Nonetheless, when I moved here, many did have local parks and neighborhood schools.
Since then, as our economic situation has gone downhill, I have seen cuts to the very services that brought me here. We are increasing the discrimination against certain sectors of the city by disproportionately cutting resources to those areas, resources residents rely on to get to work, to care for and educate their children, to provide positive influences and opportunities for their children's intellectual and social growth.
And we are blind enough to think that we are saving money by cutting bus routes, by consolidating schools and shutting down community centers. We never calculate the costs of the consequences of those decisions — consequences that will negatively affect the entire city.
One aspect of this process that bears investigating is how we learn to label certain areas of our city in ways that only serve to construct more barriers between them. I've lived in south Chicago and have spent time in suburbs of New York City, Detroit, Cleveland and Washington, D.C. All those places are cities, and can legitimately debate problems in inner-city zones.
Colorado Springs is more a string of neighborhoods than a city; downtown is walkable in size. There is no inner city here. Yet we still continue to discuss "inner-city" areas in ways that only promote fear of those areas.
I have students who initially refuse to drive south of campus because they've been told it's dangerous there. Some believe they will be mugged if they venture anywhere near downtown, not to mention the South Academy Boulevard or South Nevada Avenue areas.
Creating perceptions of danger means that our most vocal citizens, those whose economic situations make it easier for them to vote, to attend public forums, or to donate to various initiatives, will not only be unlikely to support anything benefiting those supposedly "inner-city" neighborhoods, but will also be unlikely ever to set foot in them, to know what the neighborhoods and the people who live there are really like.
I volunteer with children who rely on our community centers, because their caregivers work two or three jobs and can't be home to support them. I have met dozens of bright, creative children who are genuinely excited to learn, and who very eloquently express their fears that people dislike them because they have been labeled poor, or black, or Hispanic, or from a dangerous neighborhood.
At UCCS this semester, one of my teaching assignments was a required course in ethnographic methods, and I spent winter break preparing the class. When I learned that the community centers were on the cutting block, however, I threw my preparations out the window and started redesigning the class.
As a class, we are researching what the community centers provide and how we can best support them as partners within Colorado Springs — because I believe not only that humans learn best by doing, but also that we have a responsibility to be of service to our community. Closing the community centers is in no one's best interest.
Kimbra Smith is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
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