“All communities and persons across the nation should live in a safe and healthy environment…To the greatest extent practical and permitted by law…each federal agency shall make achieving environmental justice part of its mission by identifying and addressing as appropriate, disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental efforts programs, policies and activities on minority populations and low-income populations in the United States.”
President William J. Clinton
1994, Executive Order
How do climate change, COVID-19 and racism come together? Cities around the country are asking that question. If we eliminate COVID-19 from consideration, we find that in cities with large numbers of African Americans and Hispanic, those people of color live in highly polluted areas of those cities.
In west Louisville, the American Synthetic Rubber Company exceeded legal emissions of a particular toxic chemical, which increased the risk of cancer, heart disease, and respiratory illness for disadvantaged communities with a large African American population. Over the three-year period of 2017-2019, the company put nearly 4,000 pounds of 1,3-butadiene, a chemical compound used in making synthetic rubber that is associated with an increased incidence of leukemia. The company lost the resulting lawsuit and was forced to pay $135,375 to the city of Louisville.
Given that 80% of this toxic air pollution was released to west Louisville, often called “Rubbertown,” how will this support the citizens who were directly affected when the money was paid to the Air Pollution Control District of Louisville?
Systemic racism has enabled industries with toxic chemicals to locate in areas of cities with a predominance of people of color. Cities in need of financial support court and incentivize these industries and often ignore environmental regulation, so methane-producing power plants are allowed to become part of the landscape, and methane part of the air that citizens breathe.
Neighborhoods near industries such as these are twice as likely to have either asthma or high blood pressure and four times as likely to have COPD. Those living in an industrial area have higher rates of miscarriages, dementia, and lower birth rates. Lower-income African Americans and Hispanic Americans have fewer choices in housing. Remember redlining?
Environmental racism is inseparable from racial segregation, which is itself a result of individual and systemic racism, including public policy at every level of government. For industry, non-white neighborhoods are cheaper to acquire.
Toxic air, water and soil are a fact of life in cities around the country. In the last few years, weakened environmental laws have worsened the reality. Many African American and Hispanic citizens find themselves in segregated neighborhoods, often located near plants expelling highly toxic chemicals. This reality, coupled with high instances of heart, kidney and respiratory illness make African Americans a prime target of COVID-19.
In an era of multiple crises, we now face multiple layers of discrimination. One solution available to us is to hold those in power accountable – VOTE!