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Environmental Racism in the United States Worsens During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Updated: Oct 18, 2021

Racial inequity, climate change, and COVID-19.

These are three of the biggest issues facing the world today. Many think that they are unrelated issues, but they are deeply intertwined. According to Green Action, environmental racism is the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color (POC).

THEN: Environmental racism has deep roots in American history

With origins that stem back over 500 years ago, environmental racism first became evident when the first Europeans arrived in the U.S. Native Americans were forced out of their homes and villages, in which they had been living for centuries, and put to work in reservations and other harmful areas to economically benefit the Europeans. African slaves also suffered from a horrible quality of life and were exposed to harmful chemicals in farmland as well as limited access to proper food and water on plantations.

Environmental racism can also be traced back to the policies that were passed after America became independent from Britain. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 forced Native American Tribes west of the Mississippi River to leave their homes and ancestral land and move to western land. According to the American Sociological Review, these western lands were thought of as “lands that were too dry, remote, or barren to attract the attention of settlers and corporations.” Over 4000 Native Americans died on this “Trail of Tears,” and also from the lack of access to food and water in their new lands.

In the early 20th century, many of the institutional barriers — which would eventually lead to the modern effects of environmental racism — were also put into place in the U.S. American city planners, hoping to create profitable, clean, communities, started to zone land, based on the industries that were present. According to the Journal of the American Planning Association, land close to industrial plants is much cheaper, due to the significant risk of exposing neighboring communities to health hazards.

These city planners assigned land in communities composed primarily of low income, minority communities to industrial practices, especially in big cities like Pittsburgh and New York City. In 1987, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission found that race was highly correlated to whether someone was living near hazardous waste. These actions of zoning dangerous land to minorities spread to other states as well, which formed the bedrock of environmental racism in the U.S. today.

NOW: Environmental racism continues to disproportionately impact at-risk Americans

Today, climate change still disproportionately affects low-income communities in the U.S. These communities are primarily and most likely to be composed of POC, most commonly African American, Hispanic, and Native American communities. Around the U.S., there are over 50,000 Dangerous facilities, such as oil and gas factories and waste treatment centers, which are at the forefront of carbon and other deadly gas emissions, such as sulfur dioxide.

Many are often located very close to POC communities. Recently, D.C.-Maryland-Virginia branch of the Youth Climate Action Team organized a Townhall to discuss Climate Change and COVID-19, and Inger Anderson, the Executive Director of the United Nations Environmental Programme and Under-Secretary General of the United Nations, was a guest speaker at the event. I had the opportunity to talk to her about the topic. “Look at where all the dirty industries are — it’s next to the poorest slum areas, it’s next to where people that are discriminated against on the basis of color, or income, or cost, or religion live. And so — you see that oftentimes indeed that discirmination is very much hitting those who are the most “marginal” and they are central to society, and are the people who make the wheels turn,” she said.

In addition, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, 56% of the population near hazardous waste sites are POC.The NAACP found that “there are 91 counties across the U.S. that are building oil refineries or where refineries exist close to more than 6.7 million African Americans, and over 1 million African Americans live under 1 mile away from natural gas facilities.”

As a result these communities are faced with increased health risks associated with air pollution and chemical waste. A recent study published by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences found that Hispanic and African American communities were exposed disproportionately by air pollution in comparison to white communities. According to the study, white people experience 17% less air pollution on average, than Hispanics and African Americans.

Exposure to these toxic chemicals has caused illness to increase in these communities. For example, the town of Altgeld Gardens in the Chicago area is surrounded by 53 oil refineries and electricity plants, as well as 90% of Chicago’s landfills, and over 250 waste storage sites. This city is also 95% black and has faced extremely high rates of lung and bladder cancer, as well as alarming rates of other diseases like lymphoma and bronchitis. Many people within their community also have learning disabilities and birth defects.

One of the most famous cases of environmental racism in the U.S., was the Flint, MI, Water Crisis of 2015. Before 2014, Flint, a city with a population of almost 60% Blacks and 56% of adults below the poverty line, received its water from Lake Huron. In 2014, Governor Rick Snyder ordered the water supply of Flint to be moved to Flint River in order to save costs. It was widely known that Flint River was a waste disposal site for sewage and local industries.

“We know that coal plants, for example, where you have noxious fumes are often based in communities that are discriminated against,” Anderson said. In Flint, water was contaminated with lead and fecal coliform, with a level of 104 parts per billion, which is classified as “toxic waste” levels by the Environmental Protection Agency. The effects of this crisis are still felt today. Nearly 30,000 schoolchildren were exposed to neurotoxins and “the percentage of the city’s students who qualify for special education services nearly doubled, to 28 percent, from 15 percent the year the lead crisis began,” according to The New York Times.

All this shows how POC are affected by environmental racism and how it originated, but why does this continue to happen? Environmental racism is a casualty of systemic racism and capitalism in the U.S.

Many, like Green New Deal architect and Director of climate policy at the Roosevelt Institute, Rhiana Gunn-Wright, argue that wealthy corporations see poor, minority communities as opportunities to expand their businesses. They build industrial sites next to these communities, as they have a known low property value, which helps to reduce investment costs. Building near these communities also provides companies with access to cheap labor. Environmental protection laws are often loose in these neighborhoods. Therefore there is little to no regulation or control on the amount of hazardous hazardous waste within these communities. According to Yale University, “a lot of immigrant communities are basically sacrifice zones because they are the dumping grounds for these pollution-intensive facilities.”

COVID-19 reveals proliferation of environmental racism in the present moment

The latest example of how environmental factors disproportionately affect African Americans is the COVID-19 crisis. Predominantly Black communities account for over 20% of Coronavirus cases and 60% of related deaths in America despite being 13.4% of the American population. It is undeniable that environmental factors are a contributing factor to this. A recent study from Harvard, also found that PM2.5, a hazardous aerosol, is associated with an 8% higher risk for contracting coronavirus. As discussed before, air pollution has affected Black communities to a higher extent, and PM2.5 itself has been found in the lungs of African Americans 1.5x more than white Americans, according to the EPA.

The U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams recently said, “The chronic burden of medical ills is likely to make people of color especially less resilient to the ravages of COVID-19, and it’s possible, in fact likely, that the burden of social ills is also contributing.” When you bring these facts together, the very people most affected by environmental racism are also at a very high risk of COVID-19.

“We have a lot of homework to do to do here, to ensure we understand injustice, understand discrimination, and turn it around on its head. Being a person that works in nature, I can tell you that diversity, having many species, strengthens the ecosystem’s resilience.

“Why did we have the Irish potato famine?

“Because they were monocropping. The more you spread and diversify, the stronger you are. That’s in the natural world, and it’s no different in the human world. The greater our diversity is, the stronger we are, the more insights we have in our world,” Anderson said.

To reduce and overturn the impact of environmental racism in these communities, individual education and awareness is a small but important step to bring change. However, this issue is persistent, and driven by systemic racism and corporate greed. If legislation is passed to hold our elected officials and companies accountable for decisions that impact POC communities, systemic racism can slowly be dismantled to reduce the effects of environmental racism. Tracking and reporting on environmental and health statistics for these communities, can also reduce the effects. Most importantly, empowering communities of color and ensuring their active participation as we make these changes, could make a big difference, because without them the conversation is incomplete.

Through Teen Lenses: Are you aware that minorities are disproportionately affected by environmental factors and Climate Change? If yes, what do you think should be done to combat the issue?

“Yes, however, the problem isn’t just within the realm of climate change. It has a lot to do with the fact that poor communities are more likely to be POC communities and those communities are more affected by pollution, climate related natural disasters, and other environmental issues. Since it’s a multifaceted problem there isn’t just one or a few things that will solve it. The first thing that’s needed is strict regulation on where factories can be placed (ex: not near any community)/that homes can’t be built near factories. Second, there needs to be specific funds aside for natural disaster relief specifically for poor communities. then the government needs to pass economic reforms (such as raising the minimum wage to $15) and they need to pass a form of the GND that specifically focuses on moving towards net zero by 2040/50 and moving to negative emissions past that. Then, northern countries such as Canada/U.S. and northern Euro/Asian countries need to create plans for climate refugees” Leah Seigel, rising junior at McLean High School
Yes. I’ve recently heard about this issue, and I think that big corporations that contribute to air pollution and water pollution should all together find a way to work sustainably, but also include more information to communities who live in the area and should be held accountable in court if they continue to take advantage of minority communities.” Elizabeth Nourse, rising sophomore at McLean High School
“I had no clue that climate change disproportionately affected minorities, but given the amount of systematic racism in the world it’s not surprising that they’re more negatively impacted. To combat the issue, my opinion is that we need to work on eliminating what’s causing the disadvantage to minorities as well as helping with the damage that has already been caused.” Rising Sophomore at Thomas Jefferson High School For Science and Technology
“I did not know it was an issue, I’ve never heard about how disproportionately climate change affected minorities and I always thought climate change affected everyone equally” Rising Junior at Centreville High School
“Does that mean that Climate Change is racist towards people, because Mother Earth doesn’t work that way.” Anonymous
“I had no idea, and I’m going to do more research now that I know.” Anonymous
“There’s so many issues going on, and I’m disappointed I didn’t know about this problem.” Student at Langley High School


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