Earth Matters: Facing environmental racism

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In my last column, I promised to focus on changes for the better to counter the number of negative changes the current administration has pursued in the environmental context.

In the interim though, another black man, George Floyd, was callously killed by police, bringing the issue of racism in this country to the forefront again. Environmental protection and activism are not immune to racism.

There is a history of environmental racism in this country and around the world that needs to be confronted and addressed.
Environmental racism is the reality that communities of color disproportionately shoulder environmental harm. It is not simply that poorer communities which often are also communities of color have more solid waste facilities, experience more air pollution and are home to more Superfund sites, though that is true.

It is also true that environmentally harmful industries and consequences are intentionally imposed on communities of color regardless of income level. According to an Associated Press analysis, of the 2 million people living within a mile of one of the 327 Superfund sites vulnerable to climate change-related flooding, most of them are in low-income communities and communities of color.
Study after study have established that minority communities are disproportionately impacted by pollution and disproportionately live in communities where polluting entities are located.
A 2012 article in Environmental Health Perspectives analyzed exposure rates of fine particulate matter which is linked to cancer, lung conditions, heart attacks, asthma, low birth weights and high blood pressure.

Overall, according to the article, particulate matter exposure was higher for people of color than for white people. But it was worse than that. Hispanics had twice the exposure to chlorine particulate than whites.

Ongoing chlorine inhalation is linked to degrading cardiac function. Scientists concluded that black people are exposed to 1.5 times the amount of particulate matter than white people.

The study also determined that it is not only the geographic concentration of polluting facilities contributing to this disparity; it is also that emissions in minority neighborhoods are higher.
The consequence of this history is that communities of color endure the injuries of air and water pollution and other environmental hazards at much higher rates than white communities do.

Whether it is higher asthma rates, higher cancer rates, higher rates of cardiovascular illnesses or any other environmental health issue, people of color of all ages consistently experience these issues at notably higher rates than white people do.
This is the result of intentional decision making expressed in racist public policies such as urban renewal, redlining, and inner-city highway construction among other siting and zoning policies and decisions.
It is no surprise then that a critical response is to vote for those candidates who understand the urgent need to respond to current environmental threats and to the disparate share of those threats borne by communities of color.

Candidates and those continuing in office need to work toward 100 percent clean, renewable energy to improve the air quality in minority communities.

They need to support the expansion of the green economy to provide quality jobs. They need to back stronger emissions standards for vehicles and fund public transportation. They need to expand recycling and composting programs and reinstate and expand bans on plastic beyond the short-lived ban on single-use plastic bags (lifted because of COVID-19).

They need to enforce industry rules to prevent pollution in minority communities and hold polluters accountable for the damage they have done. They need to invest in health care and address systemic racism in our health care systems. They need to stop approving the siting of environmentally hazardous businesses in minority communities and start requiring white communities to figure out where to put their trash.
They need to do these things because these are the things we, their constituents, should demand of them. Let your legislators, elected officials, policymakers and representatives know that you expect them to address environmental racism. To identify your state senator and assembly member go to: https://www.nysenate.gov/find-my-senator and https://www.nyassembly.gov/mem/search/. Federal representatives can be identified at house.gov/representatives/find-your-representative and senators at senate.gov/index.htm.
Consider the candidates’ positions through a racial equity lens. Read about the issues and learn what minority activists are advocating for. Any response should consider and include minority opinions and suggestions. Talk about these issues with others. Environmental racism is real though not widely understood. It is past time that people know about this issue as a part of the environmental protection movement and climate change response.

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