Racial Violence as an Environmental Injustice

Family and friends of Renisha McBride are mourning her untimely and unjust death. 54-year-old Theodore Wafer, a resident of the predominately white Dearborn Heights neighborhood where McBride sought assistance after an auto accident, murdered the 19-year-old teenager. Following her accident, which authorities say was alcohol induced, McBride vigorously knocked on the doors of residents seeking assistance. Wafer, thinking McBride to be an imminent threat – one that did not warrant a call to the police – answered her rapacious pleas by shooting her once in the head through a locked screen door. Though McBride had walked to numerous homes in the community, instead of getting assistance, she received death.

For those of us who reside in North Carolina, her murder is eerily familiar, reminiscent of the recent murder-by-cop of Jonathan Ferrell in Charlotte. Ferrell, like McBride, had an auto accident – all alone – late in the evening. Ferrell, like McBride, approached multiple homes and knocked on multiple doors seeking help. In his case, a fearful homeowner called the police to report an attempted burglary.  As two police officers arrived, likely relieved and annoyed, Ferrell approached the duo. Thinking they were facing a burglar, not a person in need of aid, the police officers tased and eventually shot Ferrell 10 times. Initially, the Charlotte Police Department announced the shooting was justified only to change their tune after an independent investigation proved one Officer Randall Kerrick negligent in the shooting. He has since been charged with voluntary manslaughter.

In the aftermath of Renisha McBride’s murder, discussion has turned to the potential for Wafer to invoke Michigan’s ‘Stand You Ground’ law, the controversial statute that supported George Zimmerman’s self-defense plea after he murdered a black youth in Sanford, Florida. Others are concerned with the racial implications of the case (McBride was black and Wafer is white). What has not been questioned, and what environmental justice activists must bring to the fore, is how perceived racial threat of blacks by whites –despite a lack of any cause for alarm – in particular environments (i.e. white suburbs) is a form of environmental racism – especially when it results in injury and death. The combination of an unwarranted threat and feelings of environmental (de)belonging are what some believe provoked Wafer to shoot to kill and a North Carolina homeowner to assume Jonathan Ferrell to be a robber. In both cases, the result was the same, McBride and Ferrell were killed in predominately white, de facto segregated, suburbs – communities were designed to be safe spaces, removed from inner-cities concentrated with ‘dangerous’ people of color.

Whether by cop or by citizens, these incidents continue to happen with saddening consistency. As advocates and activists for environmental justice, we must begin to promote a definition and understanding of environmental racism that includes acts of violence that occur in spaces where black bodies – not polluting industries – are viewed as threats, by white Americans indoctrinated by a system of racial hierarchy steeped in anti-black racism. Relegating environmental racism to the pollution of land, water, and air is too limiting and may serve to isolate us from hazards such as  violence  encountered in communities.

NCEJN extends its deepest sympathies and love to the friends and families of Renisha McBride, Jonathan Ferrell, Trayvon Martin, and the many, many others whose very existence in society has warranted removal – as if waste – by a structure of racism that has anti-blackness as its foundation.

Let us all call for an end to environmental racism and work towards a new frontier of environmental justice!

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