It Smells Worse than Daddy’s Farts: A Talk about Environmental Racism

“Dad! What’s that smell!” Said my oldest daughter as we drove north on the interstate heading home from the museum.

Chiming in, “Ya dad! It smells worse than your farts!” My younger daughter added.

“That’s the smell of the oil refinery. The wind must be blowing the smell in this direction” I responded with a laugh.

Turning to look at my youngest, my oldest said, “Sister, that’s like at Miss Lupita sometimes, when we’re walking to the park.”

“Ya, dad. When we go to the park with Miss Lupita, sometimes it smells like dog food.” Said my youngest, turning her head to me.

My oldest then added, “Ya, dad Miss Lupita lives close to the dog food factory and when the wind blows towards her house it stinks. You can smell it even if the wind isn’t blowing sometimes.”

“Worse than your farts, sister’s farts, and mommy’s farts put together!” said my youngest as the two kids laughed belly laughs in the back seat.

Who is Miss Lupita?

Miss Lupita is the woman who provides child care for us when the children don’t have school and we need to work or one of us is out of town. She lives in a neighborhood that is, according to the census, 90% non-white Hispanic. A few articles have recently been published in the Denver news about racial segregation and the history of racial segregation. The segregation in her neighborhood began to take on its current demographics in the 1960’s. For many years the residence in the area were primarily European immigrants who worked for the railroad and mining companies. In the 60’s the city/state decided that just south of their neighborhood was a great place to run an interstate from the eastern plains through the mountains. The initial proposal was through an area that was more established and would have demanded the demolition of property that was considered more valuable (aka, established Anglo white American citizens). Long story short, the interstate was built, the property value fell, the people who could afford to leave, as well as pass for racially white left and people who had less means and of color moved in. The racial aspect was also heavily influenced by a bank lending process called “redlining.” To learn more about the impact of redlining and the subtle racist policies that drive it keep reading.

Not long after the construction of the interstate, industry that was neglectful to the environment, and could not, or did not want to obtain land in other areas of the city due to transportation convenience increased and there were few people in the area of the city who had many better options for purchasing homes closer to the city. This, in effect caused what is commonly referred to as “environmental racism.”   

Trying to Talk about Environmental Racism

“Do you want to know why the dog food factory is most likely so close to Miss Lupita’s? And why the oil refinery is next to neighborhoods that are primarily people of color?” I asked my oldest.

“Why?” She asked.

“Because of a policy that banks have been using used called red lining. Certain boundaries, like the interstate are the dividing line. On one side, it’s much easier for people with privilege to buy homes. On the other side are people who want to buy a home and have money, but don’t have the privileges. The people with privileges are almost always white. The people with the money, but without the privileges are people of color.”

“Daddy, why don’t people of color have privileges?” My younger daughter asked. Because banks don’t trust them to pay back the money or take care of the home.”

“But the other side of the interstate are train tracks and the dog food factory. There are no houses.”

“There’s a gas station” said my youngest.

“There aren’t even parks over there.” My oldest added.

“Ya,” I replied. “There’s a lot of space between the interstate and many of the homes for people with privilege on the other side of the interstate. And factories bought that space and build the factories there. The factories pollute the environment and the water. When the people who live nearby try to stop the pollution people don’t listen. Typically because it’s not affecting where they live.”

I then had to answer a few other “why” questions before my oldest said, “Companies would never build by our house.”

The younger jumped in, “because there’s no space.”

“Ya. And sister, because it’s almost all white people and people listen to white people.”

At that moment we pulled into our driveway and both children said, “Daddy, I’m hungry. What’s for dinner?”

I didn’t plan on talking about environmental racism. I actually have never talked about environmental racism, but I’ve heard a lot about redlining and that often includes environmental racism. Have you talked about environmental racism with your children, or thought about it? If you have, I’d love to hear from you.