Sacrifice Zones: Where Racism and Classism Collide

Can you really have equal opportunity under Capitalism?

Sacrifice Zones: Where Racism and Classism Collide
Photo edited in Canva.

Why Equal Opportunity Is Important

In our current economic system, those of us on the lower rung have to struggle to get by.

Our basic needs are not provided for, and the simple elements of survival carry an ever-rising price tag. Food, water, clothing, medicine, the roof above our heads- everything we need for life, to say nothing of pleasure and enjoyment. It all costs money.

Under capitalism, we often talk about the free market and the ability of all citizens to make a good living if they’re willing and able to work for it. We love to discuss the benefits and crow endlessly about the possibility of success in the future.

We love to talk about equal opportunity.

What we don’t tend to do is have honest conversations about the dark side of the system and the painful truths that lie at the heart of how we view each other and how we go about achieving that success.

If we're honest, then we have to acknowledge that the foundation of unregulated capitalism rests upon exploitation.

Profit carries greater importance than people, and people are only thought of insomuch as they may be converted into paying customers. Consumers are the bedrock of corporate power, and the size of their wallets indicates the size of their worth.

Empathy and compassion for human beings are considered a weakness in the corporate world. When the only thing that matters is pulling in coin, then feeling bad for the harm you do just becomes a liability.

To get ahead, you have to be willing to break some eggs. You have to be willing to cut corners and throw people under the metaphorical bus in order to see those numbers rise.

There is no clearer picture of this problem than the Sacrifice Zones.

What Are Sacrifice Zones?

It’s not a stretch to say that industrial processes can be harmful to the environment. We’re all familiar with the damage done by pollution, whether it be from fracking or from oil spills. We know that we, as a society, have a certain level of comfort with full-scale destruction of the natural world in order to produce.

What you may not be aware of is the direct human cost1

If you know where the industrial sector is based in your town, I challenge you to go for a drive around the area. Look for the nearest residential zone. What do you notice about it?

I’m willing to bet for most cities, what you find is poverty.

Low-income housing is always built in the less desirable side of town, and most of us would probably call that plain common sense. If you have money, you pay extra to live in a nice neighborhood. If you don’t, you take the roof you can find. Even if it’s leaking.

But what we sometimes fail to consider is the fallout. If you grow up in these places, what does that do to your health and development?

Well, according to the National Library of Medicine, nothing good.

Low-income housing tends to be unmaintained for various reasons. The infrastructure tends to be bare-bones and basic, lacking simple structures such as sidewalks and parks. And then you add in the combination of crime and over-policing, you probably don’t see kids getting outside very often.

Add in the fact that these areas tend to be situated far away from agricultural centers and the expense of importing produce, you tend to see high rates of obesity due to the lack of nutritious healthy food. If an apple costs four dollars but a bag of chips costs one…well. Four bags of chips will keep the hunger pangs at bay a lot longer than one piece of fruit.

Schools in North America are often funded by property taxes, ensuring that public schools in high-income zones are well appointed and modernized while low-income areas make do with faulty wiring and stained floors.

When I was a kid, the running joke among my classmates was that the school was held together by ducttape. It wasn’t inaccurate.

On top of all of this, we have industrial pollution itself. Lead, petrochemicals, and factories churning out high volumes of waste. All of those contaminants have to go somewhere, and they often wind up in the soil and drinking water of people in poorer communities.

I’ve witnessed this with my own eyes. I grew up in poverty in a small rural town, and I will never forget the smell of the paper mill dumping toxic effluent into the river…the very same river people fished from to feed their families. I remember watching a whole swathe of vegetation along the hillside die off all at once from a chemical spill off one of the shipping trains that rattled through the town near my house.

These were normal sights and smells during my childhood. Looking back, is it any wonder I was often in the hospital for respiratory illness and infection as a little girl?

I live in Canada, where most of our healthcare is paid for through the taxes we pay to the government. As such, my family never once had to question whether our illnesses should be treated by a doctor- if we were sick, we would go in. We might not have been able to afford new clothing or healthy food, but we could usually get the medicine and care we needed without any fear.

For communities in the United States though, privatized healthcare is often a barrier that families struggle to overcome. Tens of millions of Americans are unable to pay their medical bills, accumulating staggering debt and doing serious damage to their financial wellbeing.

They are penalized for trying to be healthy. The for-profit system has no interest in taking care of people who can’t pay.

During my trips through the country and in the conversations I’ve had with its citizens, I’ve met many people who simply aren’t able to afford medical help. They describe times where they’ve sat and deeply considered whether they should go in to a hospital or not, even when fearing that their symptoms might be serious.

I know people who have had their insurance fail to cover medical care. I know people who lost their jobs and thus their access to healthcare. I know people who have been saddled with bills of several thousand dollars just from being treated by the wrong doctor.

And all of this doesn’t even include disability. People who are unable to work due to physical or mental health concerns are often left behind. Disability benefits do not provide enough income to lift people out of poverty, especially if they have the common, human desire to have a family. Simply getting married can destroy your chances of escaping awful living conditions.

Can we at least agree that being disabled by birth, injury or illness should not be enough to leave you destitute and unable to afford necessities?2

If poverty stands in the way of people taking care of their health and wellbeing, then perhaps we should reconsider what ‘equal opportunity’ means to us.

How Redlining Affects Health And Poverty Today

In discussing the problem of wealth disparity and pollution, I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring racism into the conversation. Unfortunately, it plays a massive role in the history behind the whole mess.

It isn’t difficult to notice if you’re paying attention. Low-income areas are often predominantly inhabited by BIPOC3 families and individuals. I know some of my readers might be rolling their eyes here, but I promise: systemic racism is real, and it’s screwing everybody over.

In this case, a huge part of the problem is a practice called Redlining.

Redlining was originally part of the United States Government’s programs of housing aid. It was a fund established to assist people in the aftermath of the Great Depression, granting government issued mortgages and loans to help people find homes and begin building equity.

It was an attempt to restart the economy and help people get their feet back under them, and so it was a fairly lofty and noble goal…on paper.

In practice, the people in charge of deciding who would get help and who wouldn’t let their biases get in the way.

They laid out color coded maps of different districts across the United States, and each district was assessed for its worthiness to recieve aid. Districts that were predominantly Black were mostly marked red, meaning they would not be eligible for assistance.

While Redlining is no longer official policy and the government isn’t handing out New Deal era mortgages anymore, the term has picked up new meanings in the modern world.

While the government isn’t assigning whole regions to become de-facto segregated zones of poverty, we’re still seeing BIPOC families trapped in low-income areas. From being denied jobs for their skin to being denied bank loans and mortgages over stereotypes, people of color are still experiencing the same system that forces them to live in polluted industrial regions.

A term we often use for this now is ‘Environmental Racism’. It’s the practice of zoning hazardous waste disposal sites nearby these old redlined communities.

One such example is what we call Cancer Alley in Louisiana. Like many other low-income areas, it is thought of as a Sacrifice Zone. A place where low-income communities live, and where the people are not valued enough for companies to spend money safeguarding their health.

Racism and classism are inextricably linked in North America. There’s no getting away from it. And when capitalism is unregulated and money is required even for the basic necessities of living, what we’re saying is that some people deserve life and some people don’t.

We’re stating that the wealthy are more valuable to society than the poor.

We’re saying that anybody below a certain income bracket can be ignored.

We’re condemning people to death because they don’t have cash in their wallets.

I don’t think that counts as ‘equal opportunity’.

What Can Be Done?

This is a result of decades of propagandizing. It comes from the very system we base our entire economy and sense of self on. From hustle culture to quiet quitting, so much of what we talk about every day has to do with money and how to earn it.

The first thing we can do is acknowledge the obvious: disliking the current system doesn’t mean refusing to take part in it. We all need to eat, and for better or worse that means we need money. It shouldn’t be that way, but that’s what we have.

So the first thing to do is shift the conversation. Be open to hearing criticism. Listen to the accounts of people who live in these conditions and try to raise awareness.

As I always say, if you’ve got a platform, use it. Knowledge is power, and if people are willing to do so much to help a highly publicized disaster like the East Palestine derailment, they’ll be willing to help longer term problems if they hear enough of a clamor around them. They just don’t know they exist.

The second thing to do is to contact your governing representatives. Express how you feel knowing that people are in need of greater regulations and advocate on behalf of those who aren’t able to. Become an activist pushing for attention.

Democracy only functions as long as the citizens take part in it.

Another thing you can do is look for direct aid to participate in. Mutual aid groups create networks where people can bring supplies and relief to people in disaster zones, and that can easily include Sacrifice Zones like Cancer Alley.

For people in poverty, clean clothes and simple foodstuffs are a luxury. Clean socks, drinking water, vegetables from your garden, whatever you can afford to give away. You might save somebody’s life in more ways than one.

Bottom line, getting involved is as simple as reaching out and asking what people need. They won’t turn you away if you’re genuine, and generosity is not painful.

No situation, no matter how awful, is truly hopeless. As long as we’re willing to cooperate as humans have always done, we can help each other thrive.

  1. Consider the concept of an ‘Externality’, wherein a business passes on indirect costs to the consumers. If an oil spill poisons a community, the resulting medical bills not covered by the company would be an externality.

  2. This article from the Commonwealth Fund sheds some light on this issue.

  3. Black, Indigenous, People of Color.