You’ve likely heard the term “environmental racism” more and more during the past few months. From political debates to your social media newsfeed and everywhere in between, the topic is undoubtedly a prominent concern, mostly because of the Covid-19 pandemic, among other issues, impacting vulnerable communities in this country.
But what exactly is environmental racism? How does it work? Who does it affect? And most importantly, what is being done to rectify the damage it has done?
Let’s start with the simplest definition: environmental racism is the disproportionate impact on vulnerable communities and people of color because of living near pollution and dangerous ecological hazards. It is far more common than you might realize, and it is a scary reality for many people.
Environmental Racism Defined
Environmental racism is a concept that began in the 1960s and developed throughout the 1970s and 1980s to describe the injustice and inequity that exists in terms of environmental protection for poor communities and communities of color.
Even though the Environmental Protection Agency has the goal of providing an environment where all people enjoy the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards, several decades later, we’re still discussing the health burdens impacting colored communities due to environmental risk factors.
A 2018 study conducted by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) scientists found large disparities between communities of color and those living in poverty when looking at particulate air emissions.
The report, published in the American Journal of Public Health, found that “African-Americans faced the highest impact, with the community facing a 54 percent higher health burden compared to the overall population.”
In addition, non-white communities and those living under the poverty line were also at an elevated risk, with 28 percent and 35 percent higher health burden, respectively.
These findings were consistent across the nation. According to the study’s authors, “results at national, state, and county scales all indicate that non-Whites tend to be burdened disproportionately to Whites.”
The burden is real. It is estimated that a vast majority of contaminated waste sites are located in low-income neighborhoods.
Systemic racism has put landfills, factories, and factory farms in poor communities or Black and brown communities, causing those populations to be exposed at a might higher rate to harmful pollution than white, affluent towns. The pollution these communities are exposed to is extremely damaging.
In fact, the type of pollution in question has been named a “definite carcinogen” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. This particulate matter comes from automobile fumes, smog, soot, ash, construction dust, and everything in between. The EPA has declared that these air emissions are linked to adverse health conditions, including lung issues, heart attacks, and premature death.
The Lethal Risks of Environmental Racism
To understand just how deadly environmental racism can be, let’s put it in the context of current events and historical occurrences, starting with the widespread lead contamination in the drinking water in Flint, Michigan, a mostly black and poor community.
The Flint water crisis was all over the news, and most people might know that the problem had to do with the inhabitants of Flint consuming water with dangerous levels of lead. What they might not realize is that this is a prime example of environmental racism at its worst. In 2014 the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, occurred when the city switched its drinking water supply from the Detroit water system to the Flint River in an effort to save money. There was inadequate testing. The water was not properly treated, resulting in serious health issues for Flint residents, including skin rashes, hair loss, itchy skin, and eventually blood work revealed elevated lead levels in the children who inhabited Flint.
Reports show that nearly 9,000 children consumed lead-contaminated water for 18 months. Although the water smelled foul, was discolored, and tasted wrong, government officials ignored complaints. Ultimately, the inadequate government response and lack of action were linked to environmental and systemic racism.
“The Flint water crisis is one of the most emblematic examples of environmental racism, and lead contamination is a long-standing example of what environmental racism means and how it works,” explains Hanna-Attisha, MD, a physician, scientist, activist, and author of What the Eyes Don’t See, the 2015 book that exposed the widespread lead poisoning in Flint. “Lead is an irreversible neurotoxin that can adversely impact the developing brains of children, setting communities back for generations,” she said in a Goop interview.
Another example of the deadly impact of environmental racism can be seen with the industrial hog farms in Duplin County, N.C. There are far more pigs in Duplin’s community than people — with hogs outnumbering residents by 29 to 1 — producing a massive amount of waste. That waste is used as fertilizer, and microscopic pieces of that feces pollute the air and water in that community. In the early 2000s, a study on the health effects of farm pollution found that those families living near hog farms had higher infant mortality rates, kidney disease, and respiratory illness. And, you guessed it, people of color were disproportionately harmed.
“If you look at the maps, and you begin to look at where these facilities are located, it’s pretty much in communities of color,” Devon Hall, co-founder of the Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help in Duplin County, explained to NPR.
Another high-profile example of environmental racism occurred in New Orleans, where blacks were confined to the most flood-prone areas that Hurricane Katrina hit. Beyond the flood’s impact, those poor and underserved communities were also neglected in terms of government response after the storm. In New Orleans, Black populations were disproportionately located in low-wealth neighborhoods with inadequate housing, which were more vulnerable to natural disasters. Many of those Black residents were living below the poverty line. They lacked resources to survive after Hurricane Katrina, despite living in areas at an elevated risk of flood damage.
Environment Racism During the Pandemic
Systemic racism has existed for decades, and health hazards inflicted on vulnerable communities are unfortunately not a new phenomenon. But during a global pandemic, those risks are even more exacerbated.
While there is still a lot that we don’t know about Covid-19 and how it attacks and affects the body, we know that respiratory and heart health issues pose significant risks in terms of the coronavirus and how much damage it does. And it just so happens that these same virus conditions are also typically associated with environmental racism, which might explain, to some extent, why we’re seeing communities of color and vulnerable communities being hit particularly hard by Covid-19. For these vulnerable populations, it’s a double whammy of chronic pollution plus a global pandemic.
Environmental justice and action have never been more essential and more urgent. In the past, despite the known risks and dangerous health hazards of environmental racism, a combination of weak policies and lack of enforcement has left Black, brown and poor communities plagued by pollution and lasting health issues.
More recently, policies seem to be moving in the right direction, but not fast enough. “We made progress, but there have also been tremendous setbacks,” explains Suzi Ruhl, who served on the Federal Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice during the Obama administration.
It seems the Biden administration agrees. They have pledged an aggressive approach to achieve environmental justice. In fact, a recent executive order signed by President Biden aims to “create a White House council on environmental justice and pledges that 40% of the benefits from federal investments in clean energy and clean water would go to communities that bear disproportionate pollution.”
In addition, Biden nominated the first Black man to lead the EPA, Michael Regan. He is also staffing the White House with experts who have dedicated their careers to enforcing equitable climate and environmental policies.
These changes could not come soon enough.
We all need to be paying attention to environmental racism. We all need to become advocates for our communities if we want to see change today that will impact future generations for years to come.