Acres of White Privilege: Reflection on Environmental Justice
By Joelyn Katherine Foy
Mike answered my question, “What is eco-apartheid?” He said, “It used to be called
environmental racism or eco-racism. Now we call it eco-apartheid.” Hmm, I thought. I was
aware of NIMBY (Not In My BackYard) where Whites protest the location of a landfill close to
middle class neighborhoods. But the “apartheid” got my attention. I have not visited South
Africa, but I did study Apartheid in South Africa through the lens of Archbishop Desmond
Tutu’s writings because I wanted to understand the title of Jonathan Kozol’s book, “Shame of the
Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America.” I will watch any film suggested
about Reconciliation or during Apartheid itself. I was pleased that the film, “Invictus” educated
moviegoers about some of the history leading up to the election of Nelson Mandela.
But I was not prepared for what I saw today in Globeville. If I understood Mike, our tour
guide, correctly, there are 6 Superfund sites in the three communities of Globeville, Swansea,
and Elyria that we did not see today! But we saw at least one site (the smelter site, Sarco[sp?])
and many brownfields. Again, if I understood Mike correctly, everything we saw was within
two miles of the center where we started out tour, a former church where Mike works as a
Globeville, Swansea, and Elyria used to be the garden district of Denver. Everyone came
from miles around to purchase fresh produce. Today many of the houses are torn down,
abandoned, replaced with junkyards, parking lots, and enlarged business footprints. The
Interstate cuts each of these neighborhoods in half. I-70 effectively halves the political strength
of each of these neighborhoods as well.
There have been some successes. The community center in Globeville where Mike
works in the former German Congregational Church offers classes for pre-kindergarten, parents,
and seniors. They do not use Head Start or Title I funds. Their funding comes from grants and
community fundraising. On another street in Globeville there is a free clinic where anyone who
does not have healthcare can get the care they need. There is an office and center for the
community coalition (of which Mike is a part and helped create) where comprehensive social
services are offered in Swansea.
But there are no grocery stores in any of these neighborhoods. The closest grocery stores
are 8 miles, 6 miles and 5 miles away. Although there are plans for community gardens, the
Parks and Recreation Center in Elyria is closing due to lack of funds. This center has been in
operation since 1948.
Among all of the failures and the few successes, however, lies acres and acres of parking
lot for the National Western Stock Show and the abandoned school bus lot where two mallard
ducks were swimming in a big pool of water. “Well, at least they have a bird sanctuary!” This
comment was related to the fact that one of the brownfields is supposedly clean enough for birds,
but not for humans.
I grew up in Houston. My mother took me to the fat stock show every February. It is the
one after the National Western in Denver. Every year many girls and boys in rural America
compete with each other to work their way competitively to the National Western in Denver, the
American Royal in Kansas City, or the Fat Stock Show in Houston. Did I forget to mention that
these girls and boys are all White? Oops. Very few children of color are involved in FFA or 4-
H; in raising livestock, showing, and competing in preparation for the livestock shows every
winter all over the country.
Therefore when we got to the parking lots which stand empty all year long except
January, I was reminded of my childhood riding horses, hearing my mother’s stories of growing
up on a ranch in South Texas, and my grandfather the bank President, the mercantile owner, and
the rancher. I’ve always been proud of the grandfather I never met. According to my aunt Irene,
my grandfather was the only White man in the county invited to the Juneteenth celebrations on
the river. He took my mother with him.
But when I saw those parking lots where the small houses and produce farms used to be;
when I saw the dry dust of dirt that has lost its fertility; when I saw acres and acres of new
buildings in the midst of these urban ghettos, all I could think was, “This is the landscape of
White privilege.” For the city of Denver it makes more sense to have all of the dollars that the
National Western Stock Show brings in for one month of the year than to spend dollars on the
communities that used to feed all of Denver in the late 19th and early 20th century. It makes
sense to allow one elementary school to house many more children in the shadow of I-70 than to
build adequate schools. It made more sense until recently to bus children out of their
neighborhoods to junior high and high school. And today it makes more sense to have one
junior/senior high school for grades 6-12 than to make sure that Hispanic children are prepared
for college. Today 85% of the population in Globeville, Swansea, and Elyria is Hispanic.
During the late 19th and early 20th century the primary population was Eastern European. Similar
demographic shifts have occurred in Kansas City, Kansas and for similar reasons. You can tell
the story through the churches.
I don’t know how many acres at the confluence of I-70 and I-25 are devoted to the
National Western Stock Show buildings and parking lots, but it is a lot of acres devoted to White
privilege for middle class to wealthy teenagers and their parents. The perpetuation of White
dominance in rural America is assured. What isn’t assured is that Denver cares even one iota for
its communities of color that were the farmers and food producers of Denver’s early history.
Apparently people of color in Denver are expendable. Cancer, respiratory illnesses, thyroid
diseases abound from the combined health hazards of the Sarco (smelter), the oil refinery, and
the coal plant. In addition, smaller businesses such as the rendering plant, the dog food
manufacturer (Purina), and some guy who melts his own aluminum add to the story of toxic
fumes, toxic waste released into the air, into the groundwater, and directly into the Platte River
and Sand Creek which wind through these neighborhoods.
I am appalled. I am angry. And I am not ignorant of the political meanings of these
realities. Is writing a reflection enough? What will I do now? How will I turn this anger into
activism? Are there similar neighborhoods where I live? I live in a very strongly working class
university town. The entire town supports the university in some way or another. But
Manhattan, Kansas has a population less than 50,000. We don’t have public transportation. That
is how small we are.
The buses in the neighborhoods of color in Denver run every 30 minutes during the peak
hours and every hour during off-peak. The light rail additions will not include any of these
neighborhoods. I am riding the light rail from south Denver to Downtown for the AERA
convention only because the light rail connects one expensive hotel at the Denver Tech Center to
many others downtown. I am a privileged White female from the South who had all of her
educational and environmental needs met as a child and throughout most of my lifetime.
Although I was able to purchase a home, it was taken from me during the mortgage crisis. Many
residents of the communities of color in Denver own their own homes. Some of them were built
by their grandparents, and they have lived in them their whole lives. Who is more economically
stable? I who lost my only home? Or the 90-year-old couples who have lived in Globeville,
Swansea, and Elyria all of their lives?
On my way out of Denver I took I-225 through Cherry Creek. As I searched for a
breakfast restaurant while I-225 was a parking lot (early morning, going-to-work, bumper-to-
bumper traffic), I drove through strip malls with many abandoned shops and restaurants. Cherry
Creek is one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Denver. I finally found a Subway, but the
manager does not serve breakfast. However, he pointed me in the direction of one that does. I
asked him, “So … how come all of these shops are closed? It looks like a Ghost Town here!”
His reply confirmed my suspicions. Behind the privacy fences along Parker Road, are the
abandoned houses of the upper middle class. Cherry Creek is just another neighborhood through
which one drives to get to the one where you work or live.
Again, I ask, which neighborhoods are more stable? Which neighborhoods are most
likely to help their neighbor? In which neighborhoods will your neighbor help you get your
child to school? In which neighborhood will you find care and comfort if you are ill? I am
betting on Globeville, Swansea, and Elyria.