We Can’t Fix Systemic Injustice Without Addressing the Nuclear Threat

It is time to examine how U.S. defense strategies, budgets and infrastructure—including those related to nuclear weapons—harm and disregard people of color and women from the hyperlocal to the global scale. For change to take place, we must demand justice and equality on every front, including national security.

An anti-war demonstration in London’s Trafalgar Square in February 2007. (kit oates / Flickr)

The nuclear age began 75 years ago this summer. By the time I was born 53 years later, the threat of nuclear weapons barely registered with everyday Americans.

I did not grow up running duck and cover drills in school and I never worried about a nuclear attack on my home in San Antonio. Throughout my education, I got some cursory lessons about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the end of the Cold War—but nuclear weapons and the policy surrounding those weapons always seemed like a distant problem for someone else.  

That is likely because there is no shortage of critical issues the country is dealing with right now, most of which my generation has inherited and will have to address. Real progress, though, will require acknowledging and discussing how such important issues, including nuclear weapons policy, intersect and affect each other. 

You do not have to look further than the Southwest to observe how our country’s historical disregard for non-white communities was connected to our nuclear ambitions. Following World War II, the federal government announced it would purchase all uranium ore that was mined in the United States for the purpose of making atomic weapons, resulting in a mining boom. Land belonging to the Navajo Nation became a prime location for uranium mining.

Shiprock, New Mexico uranium mill aerial photo. (VBgov.com)

From 1944-1986, private corporations extracted 30 million tons of uranium out of Navajo land. The Navajo people worked in these mines, often relocating their families closer to mining sites.

While the health risks attached to the job had been well established by the late 1930s, there is no indication the government or corporations involved attempted to inform and properly equip the Navajo people. Unaware of the dangers, the Navajo people built their homes out of uranium; and children swam, and livestock drank from the infected water pools that filled as a result of the mining. This led members of the Navajo community to experience bone cancer, impaired kidney function or failure, and lung cancer, all conditions linked to uranium contamination.

The impact on the Navajo people did not end when the mining did. In 2016, 40 percent of the tribe still lacked access to running water,  a common problem in low-income communities of color within the United States.

To this day, there remain more than 500 abandoned uranium mines, along with homes and water sources that contain elevated levels of radiation. Women, in particular, suffered from this contamination. A 2018 University of New Mexico study found of the 781 women in Navajo Nation initially screened, 26 percent had concentrations of uranium in their urine—exceeding those found in the highest 5 percent of the U.S. population.

To this day, the Navajo people struggle to receive adequate government compensation for the health effects of uranium mining that continues to impact their community. The Navajo people unknowingly sacrificed their lives and their health in an effort that paved the way for the government to develop an excessive stockpile of weapons of mass destruction. 

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This is just one of many examples of the U.S. nuclear program having negative impacts on minorities and Indigenous communities.

Of course, the environmental effects of nuclear weapons production are nothing compared to the effects of their use. The atomic bombs the United States dropped on Japanese cities killed an estimated 140,000 people in Hiroshima and an additional 74,000 in Nagasaki. Many survivors suffered from leukemia, and thyroid, breast and lung cancer. The nuclear explosions led pregnant women exposed to the bombings to experience “higher rates of miscarriage and deaths among their infants,” and “their children were more likely to have intellectual disabilities, impaired growth and an increased risk of developing cancer.”

While the bombings themselves were brief, their impact continues through generations. Our government knew what nuclear weapons would do to people, but went on to build tens of thousands of them anyway.

These morally questionable policies, however, were not uniformly approved and accepted. While no one saw fit to mention it when I was in school, many prominent Black Americans were powerful advocates for the elimination of nuclear weapons, advocating that peace and security are needed on all—local, state and national—levels in order for equality to be reached. Civil rights activists like Coretta Scott King, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Bayard Rustin, W.E.B. Du Bois, and the Black Panther Party pushed for nuclear disarmament because they recognized that like racial inequality, it is a human rights issue. 

The racial inequity of coronavirus has again brought social justice issues to the forefront of our national conversation, with Black Americans and Latinos being three times as likely to become infected as white people. In our relative states of isolation, we have collectively experienced a painful reminder of our country’s long history of police brutality and a broken criminal justice system, disproportionately affecting Black Americans. In this difficult time, it has become clear that for change to take place, we must demand justice and equality on every front, including national security.

It is time to examine how U.S. defense strategies, budgets, and infrastructure—including those related to nuclear weapons—harm and disregard people of color and women from the hyperlocal to the global scale.

If we aim to promote peace, security and justice as a nation, we must come to acknowledge and address the existing fault lines in our society. A world held hostage by the constant looming threat of nuclear war is not a just world.

Indeed, as this year comes to an end, the 75th anniversaries of Hiroshima and Nagasaki can serve as a much-needed moment of reflection. By reckoning with the past, our generation can start to create a new kind of security for everyone—a security that isn’t underpinned by indiscriminate weapons that were built and advanced through racial discrimination. 

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Isabel Martinez is the Office Manager at the nonprofit Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. You can find her on Twitter at @isaaamartinezzz.