Extreme poverty, environmental degradation and toxic hazards in poor communities in the United States are facing increased international scrutiny following an inspection of rural Alabama communities by a United Nations official. The conditions struck the official as shocking and completely out of step with prevailing conditions in the wealthy, developed world.
The tour by Philip Alston, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, has cast a light on an issue known well to poverty-blighted communities and oppressed nationalities in the U.S.: inequitable local policies that safeguard environmental racism by literally concentrating toxic hazards in the backyards of the poor.
“Some might ask why a U.N. Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights would visit a country as rich as the United States. But despite great wealth in the U.S., there also exists great poverty and inequality,” Alston said.
The U.N. official's tour aims to provide transparency to the human rights violations, destitution, and lack of access to crucial basic services that have blighted oppressed communities throughout the United States. U.N. investigators have also toured cities and towns in California and Alabama, as well as Washington, D.C., West Virginia and the colonial territory of Puerto Rico.
According to Alston, the level of degradation he found can only be compared to the disparities that exist in the poor peripheries of the global economy – where the vast majority of people have known little besides maldevelopment, impoverishment and the institutional violence of inequality.
During a tour of a rural Butler County community, Alston witnessed "raw sewage flows from homes through exposed PVC pipes and into open trenches and pits," with one home's water line running straight through the fetid outdoor pool.
"I think it's very uncommon in the First World. This is not a sight that one normally sees. I'd have to say that I haven't seen this," Alston commented.
Prior to the Civil War, the southern Alabama region was a cotton-farming area where antebellum plantation owners exploited the labor of thousands of Black slaves on vast estates.