Two topics dominate the news. News anchors oscillate between the coronavirus and protests taking place across the country. In the articles that flood my social media feed, one aspect of both stories floats to the top: Marginalized communities are and have been working to communicate their oppression. Most people know or accept this truth without grasping the depth of how embedded racism is in our society. I count myself in this population that has reached the “oh” moment in understanding, but still has a steep learning curve.
If you’re with me in the learning sphere, which I don’t think ever ends, there are numerous resources out there on racism in schools, prisons, urban planning, and even shopping, but environmental racism is another facet of racism crippling communities of color. Those living in poverty are also concentrated in areas with more pollution of all types: noise pollution, air pollution, and the pollution that comes with overcrowding to name a few.
The federal branch of government responsible for overseeing environmental regulations, the Environmental Protection Agency, published a study in 2018 that confirmed communities of color and communities experiencing poverty are more likely to bear the brunt of the effects of pollution. “The brunt” of pollution includes asthma, higher mortality rates, and cardiovascular problems that are attributable to particulate matter, often referred to as PM. Black communities generally bear a 1.54 times higher burden than the general population.
Though the correlational language may make the statistics seem coincidental, there were and continue to be deliberate decisions by professionals across industries that created the conditions and the system that perpetuates the concentration of pollution in communities of color. An example of this is the practice of redlining and municipal underbounding. Redlining is the common banking practice of identifying neighborhoods that contained minorities and deliberately not offering financial services such as mortgages, insurance, or loans, in and around communities of color. Local governments also had a practice of “municipal underbounding” in which municipalities intentionally refrained from annexing communities of color or communities experiencing poverty. By leaving portions of the city unincorporated, municipalities did not have to provide public services to these communities, including trash pickup or code enforcement. These decisions were sometimes made under the ruse of not wanting to increase taxes on these communities for the service they would provide should the community become incorporated.
To see how these two practices could contribute to increased health problems in minorities, consider this story: a community of color has low property values because the community has been redlined by nearly all banking institutions in the area. The property value is cheap so a power plant acquires a large parcel of land near the community opting for the cheap startup cost for the property, thereby avoiding the NIMBYs (not in my backyard) in the white suburban neighborhoods. Several residents attend a board of zoning appeals and argue the plant cannot be built on the property because the zoning only allows for residential homes. The zoning board states they cannot enforce the code because the neighborhood is not technically part of the municipality/is not an incorporated neighborhood. The power plant proceeds with construction and eventually begins operations. The pollutants from the factory further reduce property values for the residents and cause health problems among adults and children. The adults begin to suffer from health problems and seek medical treatment. Medical debt may be passed on to children which forces them to stay in the neighborhood with lower housing costs at the expense of their health or their children’s health.
Enter the environmental justice movement. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, environmental justice “is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.” This definition lives on the EPA website thanks to activism and protests. According to this article by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the first environmental justice movement protest that garnered media attention was a protest by people of color in North Carolina over a decision to deposit soil contaminated with PCBs in a toxic waste landfill in a small community. Though this community did not stop the toxic dumping, the protests and public legal battle added fuel to civil rights protests in the 1960s by adding environmental racism to the list of racial disparities activists could identify for lawmakers.
To learn more about environmental justice, a variety of organizations provide educational resources, as well as concrete action steps. Check the web for these organizations if you want to learn more or to help:
- The NAACP’s Environmental and Climate Justice Resource Center https://www.naacp.org/climate-justice-resources/resource-organizations/The Sierra Club https://www.sierraclub.org/
- The Climate Action Network http://www.climatenetwork.org/policy
- The Hoosier Environmental Council if you live in Indiana https://www.hecweb.org/
- CRPE https://crpe-ej.org/
- The Trans Disaster Relief Fund http://tdrfund.us/about-tfafund/