The Right Is Using the East Palestine Disaster to Stoke Racism, Not Fight Corporate Greed

Rather than linking the East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment disaster to a national culture of impunity for corporations and disregard for working-class people, the Right is stoking racial animosity.

Contractors cleaning up and testing Sulphur Run, a creek that runs from the derailment site through the center of East Palestine, Ohio, March 3, 2023. (Rebecca Kiger for the Washington Post via Getty Images)

In the weeks since the toxic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, conservative pundits have managed to turn the conversation to their favorite topic: wokeness. In their view, the lack of media attention and federal emergency response from the Biden administration is proof that American elites care more about wokeness than the people living in the largely white, Trump-voting district.

But they’ve got it backward. In reality, the abandonment of East Palestine residents is something with which black and brown working-class communities across the country are all too familiar. Rather than accentuating their differences, the story actually highlights an experience that working-class people have in common: when profit-hungry and unscrupulous corporations dump toxic waste into communities, nobody comes to their rescue, harm is never fully redressed, and the perpetrators are rarely held accountable.

On February 14, Tucker Carlson told his viewers that because East Palestine is “overwhelmingly white and politically conservative” the federal government and the media don’t have much concern for the health of the people living there. “Imagine if this happened in, well, the favored cities of Philadelphia and Detroit,” he opined, “In both cases, had it affected the rich or the favored poor, it would be the lead of every news channel in the world.”

Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk went a bit further and, flirting with the white nationalist “Great Replacement” theory, implied that Democrats actually prefer for white working-class people to be made sick by industrial pollution:

For the last couple of years, I have been warning about this crusade against white people. And people shrug their shoulders, say, oh, Charlie, why does that matter? I could tell you why it matters — when there is a crisis now and the leaders hate working-class whites, they’re not going to scramble to save your life. They’ll lie to you and tell you to go back home while you’re poisoned.

There was some media coverage when Norfolk Southern’s train first derailed in East Palestine, but it wasn’t until it became a story of corporate malfeasance and environmental harm that national outlets paid real attention. The state and federal government’s response was also a bit underwhelming, with residents complaining about a lack of information and resources, insufficient coordination between agencies, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) not sending aid until two weeks after the derailment.

Carlson, Kirk, and others claim that federal aid and media attention would have come quicker if the victims had been black. Kirk proclaimed that if the train had derailed in a black neighborhood, “It would be Flint water crisis 2.0.” But that’s just it: the disaster in Flint, Michigan didn’t get national media coverage until nearly a year after residents found lead in their water. FEMA didn’t get involved until almost two years had passed.

East Palestine is not a victim of reverse racism. It’s a victim of corporate greed and politicians’ complicity in railroad companies offloading the human cost of their profits onto people who can’t fight back. Working-class black and brown people don’t get special treatment when this happens in their communities. In fact, the tune of abandonment in the face of environmental injustice is one they know by heart.

A Product of Their Environment

Apparently, Kirk and Carlson aren’t aware that Flint 2.0 has been happening in the majority-black city of Jackson, Mississippi since August of last year, when heavy rain and flooding knocked pumps offline, leaving 150,000 residents without running water. A year prior, a severe winter storm had done the same. The media response to Jackson has been pretty similar to East Palestine — both got some, and both deserved far more.

Jackson’s water system has endured serious neglect for nearly a century. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) first reported elevated lead levels in the drinking water in 2015, and since then officials have issued constant boil notices and warnings for pregnant people and children not to drink tap water. After this recent disruption in service, federal and state aid was delivered and faucets started flowing again, but the water remains unsafe.

Lead poisoning does not discriminate based on race, but decades of discriminatory housing practices have created a situation in which black children in poverty are twice as likely to have elevated lead levels than poor white children. Conservatives have long blamed the racial disparities in educational and economic outcomes on a “culture of poverty,” when issues like lead poisoning make it clear that political choices concentrate minorities in environments that are harmful to childhood development. With the exception of high-profile cases like Flint and to a lesser extent Jackson, there has been little attention toward addressing this problem.

The state of Jackson’s water system troubles are a direct result of white flight from the majority-black city driving disinvestment, a Republican-controlled state legislature seemingly hell-bent on preventing the city from accessing federal relief funds, and Wall Street and private companies looking to extract profit from calamity. The result of this combination is often called environmental racism, and there’s no question that it is — though as East Palestine shows, sometimes working-class white communities end up in similar circumstances.

Down in the Dumps

Environmental racism refers to the disproportionate concentration of man-made environmental hazards in non-white communities, as well as indifference toward those communities when natural disaster strikes. Lead poisoning from dilapidated water infrastructure isn’t the only way that working-class people of color pay for company profits with their health. Last year, for example, three executives from Gold Coast Commodities were charged with illegally dumping industrial waste into the Jackson sewer system from processing used cooking oil and animal fat.

In Cheraw, South Carolina, where 53 percent of residents are black, a textile plant routinely dumped cancer-causing chemicals until the 1970s, with no public knowledge of the practice until a hurricane brought toxic water from the rivers into people’s homes and public spaces. Cheraw remains an EPA superfund site to this day.

In St Gabriel, Louisiana, chemical companies have been setting up shop for decades, creating the stretch of land now known as cancer alley — so-called because the majority-black population there is 50 percent more likely to develop cancer than the rest of the nation.

Sugarcane producers in Pahokee, Florida create “black snow” every October when they burn their crops before harvest. The practice makes harvesting easier for growers, as they can burn away everything but the valuable sugar cane. It also leaves the majority-black population of Pahokee to contend with heavily polluted air and water that cause respiratory illnesses and other ailments, as well as harming local wildlife.

Corporations tend to concentrate their hazardous industrial activities in poor neighborhoods, where residents have little means to fight back. Because racial segregation and marginalization have concentrated poverty in majority-minority areas, these hazards are disproportionately felt by people of color. But that doesn’t mean that industrial accidents never occur in majority-white municipalities.

In the majority-white town of Kingston, Tennessee, billions of gallons of extremely toxic coal ash burst from containment and spilled into a river channel. The responders who cleaned up the site experienced horrific health effects. Two years later the Tennessee Valley Authority decided to move the collected toxic material to the predominantly black city of Uniontown, Alabama, where under some legal maneuvering the coal ash was magically declared nontoxic.

Storing toxic waste from industrial accidents in low-income black communities is something of a tradition. When a company dumped cancer-causing chemicals along 240 miles of North Carolina highway in 1978, the state chose the poverty-stricken city of Warren to house the toxic material. This led to the Warren protests of 1982, which were ultimately unsuccessful in keeping the toxic dump away from residents but have since been seen as the birth of the environmental justice movement.

Toxic Divisions

Conservative punditry aside, there is growing evidence that federal aid for natural and man-made disasters has been disproportionately dispensed to white communities. But the prevalence of environmental racism and the preferential treatment of white disaster survivors does not mean the people of East Palestine don’t also deserve attention and help — far from it. They are victims of corporate greed, much like the victims of environmental racism. The task is for working-class people of all racial backgrounds to recognize their common vulnerability in the face of corporate pollution and government inaction.

Conservative commentators have blamed East Palestine on the Biden administration’s perceived deference to wokeness, but have said next to nothing about the administration’s deference to rail companies. In truth, the White House’s meager efforts to address environmental racism didn’t cause aid and media attention to be delayed to East Palestine. But its lax regulatory hand with rail companies, along with breaking a potential worker strike earlier this year, certainly helped create the conditions for such an industrial accident to happen.

The people of East Palestine shouldn’t view the victims of environmental racism as competition for a limited amount of aid and attention, but rather as fellow working-class people suffering from corporations prioritizing profit over the safety of those living near industrial operations. To really mount a serious challenge to the status quo, we must reject conservatives’ attempts to sow division and choose solidarity instead.