Arctic weather conditions have been causing devastation in Texas over the past week, leaving 3.3 million residents without power, and 13 million with water service disruptions. Temperatures dropped as low as -18C last week, leading to an increased demand for heat that overwhelmed the state’s independent power grid. Texas – along with Alaska and Hawaii – is not a part of the national power grid that fuels the rest of the US. The state relies solely on itself for power, a decision made by state officials in order to retain maximum control over their own electricity, and keep power away from “federal regulators.” Consequently though, in times of crisis like this one, Texas is unable to rely on other states to provide power. Moreover, Texas energy companies have been criticised for favouring low prices “at the cost of delaying maintenance and improving power plants”. It is decisions like these that have led to Texans experiencing an unimaginable crisis.
However, it is important to examine the ways in which the disaster is affecting particular communities within the state, and necessary to investigate why climate change hits some harder than others. Amidst the emergency, experts have deduced that “historically marginalized communities” were the first to lose power, and amongst some of the last to have it restored. These groups – the poor, Black, and Latino in this case – are hit much harder than their fellow white Texans. Robert Bullard, a professor at Texas Southern University said of this disparity:
“Whether it’s flooding from severe weather events like hurricanes or it’s something like this severe cold, the history of our response to disasters is that these communities are hit first and have to suffer the longest”.
What is happening in Texas is a clear example of environmental racism, an occurrence whereby minority groups become burdened with disproportionate environmental hazards within their neighbourhoods.
The US has a shameful history of allowing its non-white citizens to suffer disproportionately from the effects of climate change, and the situation in Texas – like that in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina – is no different. Climate change is a race issue, made evident by the susceptibility of Black and brown neighbourhoods to ecological disaster. As The New York Times reports, neighbourhoods that house communities of colour have generally poor infrastructure and insulation, meaning they are unequipped to deal with power outages and low temperatures. The link between minority communities and inadequate housing is an example of the government’s lack of care for people of colour. It is part of the larger issue of racism that is embedded into the American South, that which sees non-white individuals as less deserving of environmental protection.
In discussing the situation in Texas, it is also vital to mention the state’s history of voter suppression, another issue that hits communities of colour harder. Black and brown voters face multiple hurdles when trying to cast their votes in the state, and are often discouraged, intimidated, or even threatened with prosecution. This leads to an underrepresentation of minority voices in elections, and when it comes to Texas, the officials that are elected only reflect white voices. This can be seen with the elected officials that cut corners to save money on maintaining the power grids. Individuals who understand the impact of climate disaster would not vote for these politicians, yet these individuals – the ones that suffer ecologically – are the same individuals whose votes are suppressed. Consequently, Texan lawmakers do not reflect the wishes of the most vulnerable.
Adding insult to injury, as the death toll mounted as a result of the unbearable cold, Texas Senator Ted Cruz took a family vacation to the Mexican resort of Cancun. Cruz was photographed at the airport on Wednesday, illustrating a blinding disconnect with his constituents. Cruz’s ignorance is an example of the disparaging realities for white, powerful and rich individuals, compared to lower-class Texan’s of colour. Similarly, Texas Governor Greg Abbott has come under fire for failing to take any accountability for the power outages. Abbott’s failure of leadership further shows how the privileged are able to separate themselves from the reality of ecological injustice. In the light of climate crisis, the reaction of elected officials shows a clear environment of neglect for Texas’ most powerless.
The situation in Texas exposes harsh truths about the way the US treats minorities in the wake of disaster. The suffering experienced by these communities is part of a much larger system of oppression and racism that has long embedded itself within environmental discourses. The tendency for non-white Texans to live in cheap, old and poorly built homes makes them an easy target for extreme weather conditions. Having suffered disproportionally from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, ethnic minorities in Texas are now facing a future hindered by multiple, intensifying crises.
Written by Zoe Bracegirdle