Clark Pleasant Library Hosts Lecture on Environmental Racism – Daily Journal | CarTailz

Public historian Ben Clark discusses redlining during a talk on white privilege and environmental racism Tuesday at the Clark Pleasant Library branch.


The Clark Pleasant branch of the Johnson County Public Library hosted a talk on Tuesday about environmental racism, white supremacy and its impact on predominantly black neighborhoods in Indianapolis.

Public historian Ben Clark, a research fellow at the IUPUI Arts and Humanities Institute, delivered the talk, titled “Building Bridges: White Supremacy and Environmental Racism.” The talk, which was attended by about 20 people, was part of a series of talks Clark gave throughout central Indiana and as far away as Richmond and Lafayette for nearly a year, but it was his first appearance in Johnson County.

During his presentation, Clark discussed the impact of environmental neglect on two predominantly black Indianapolis areas: the Martindale-Brightwood and Riverside neighborhoods. In Riverside, chemicals from dry cleaning contaminated groundwater, resulting in high levels of chlorine solvents in volatile organic compounds. Even if the water has been declared safe to drink, the risk of steam ingress through crawlspaces in basements remains, Clark said.

In the Martindale-Brightwood neighborhood, the American Lead Smelter Factory was a site for reclaimed lead in automobile batteries from 1946 to 1965. While many former white residents were able to move out of the neighborhood due to incentives from the GI Bill that was created in 1944, black World War II veterans were often denied the opportunity to move into the same suburban neighborhoods due to discriminatory housing policies, which meant that a significant number Black residents in neighborhoods like Martindale-Brightwood had to remain even as lead contamination affected their health,” Clark said.

“White privilege meant whites could move out, but blacks stayed behind,” he said. “The lead smelting factory came and operated for 20 years, caught fire and then failed to operate. American Lead pulled up stakes and left, but there was still tremendous amounts of lead pollution in the ground.”

The lead remained in the ground for decades until 2005, when the Environmental Protection Agency asked the lead company that owned the smelter to remove tarnished soil from about 220 homes.

Beyond the two boroughs, an even larger portion of Marion County is affected by redlining, a practice that began in the 1930s in which government and real estate officials red-flagged certain neighborhoods as obstacles to development because those areas were considered undesirable. These neighborhoods were often predominantly black. Redlining also led to the practice of building freeways through low-income neighborhoods, as seen in Indianapolis. Before lead was banned from fuel in the 1990s, leaded gasoline particles rained down from the freeways onto these poor black and Hispanic neighborhoods, causing contamination, Clark said.

“For red areas, you meant to say away from them. They weren’t a good investment because they were mostly lower-class black people. This is the type of language they used in these government documents,” he said. “These are areas that the freeways run through. Those neighborhoods were being decimated by the interstate, so most of the trail got there.”

Aside from being knowledgeable about environmental racism and its effects, it’s important to try to change things for the better through advocacy, said Karen Lunsford, a Greenwood resident who attended the talk.

“Any person who cares about the environment needs to raise the issue to our legislators. Petroleum and chemical companies, and companies that use harmful chemicals in their businesses, have a huge impact on Congress and legislators,” she said. “As we approach the start of a long legislative term, we need to be vigilant about what is happening in the legislative committees. Anyone concerned about the short- and long-term impact on the environment needs to take the issue to the Indiana legislature.”

Clark recommended that attendees call lawmakers and get friends to do the same if they are concerned about a bill so lawmakers are aware of the potential impact on their constituents.

John Kooi, also a Greenwood resident, spoke about the importance of the vote.

“I only came because I care about the health of the state. I moved here four years ago and I’m starting to gather information on where Indiana stands on important issues like air pollution and groundwater pollution,” Kooi said. “More people should pay attention to such things when they go to the polls. It’s more about people than statistics.”

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