How and Why Systemic Racism Harms the Environment
Updated: Sep 14
By Thin Lei Win, Thomas Reuters Foundation.
Mass protests over police violence against Black Americans has led to renewed scrutiny of the links between racism and environmental degradation.
Structural racism in American cities — the unequal distribution of wealth and resources to specific socio-cultural groups — creates vastly different neighborhoods and can reduce biodiversity, according to a new paper led by the University of Washington Tacoma.
Why It Matters
Environmental hazards like pollution and climate disasters often have the severest impacts on people of color, Indigenous tribes, and those on low incomes. Examples include the lead poisoning crisis in Flint, Michigan and petrochemical pollution in Louisiana's Cancer Alley.
"Racism is destroying our planet, and how we treat each other is essentially structural violence against our natural world," said Christopher Schell, lead author of the paper and an assistant professor of urban ecology at the University of Washington Tacoma. How does this manifest in real life?
There are fewer trees and plant diversity in low-income and racial minority neighborhoods in major cities across the United States.
For example, areas that were "redlined" decades ago, a policy that segregated urban residential neighborhoods principally by race, have on average 21% less tree canopy.
Less tree cover means hotter temperatures and fewer plant and animal species. The same phenomenon has emerged in cities in Canada, Brazil, and South Africa, according to the authors. These neighborhoods also have more disease-carrying pests, such as rodents and mosquitoes, which inevitably affect human health and well-being, they said.
Neighborhoods with low-income and Black and minority groups also tend to be closer to environmental hazards such as industrial waste or dumping sites than wealthier, predominantly white areas.
Take the case of Flint, Michigan where the local government switched its public water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River to reduce costs during a financial crisis. The corrosive river water caused lead to leach from pipes.
Decades of proximity to pollution have compromised neighborhood air quality and the respiratory health of marginalized communities and this may have played a role in how they are affected by the coronavirus pandemic, the authors said.
"Recent evidence linking air pollution exposure with COVID-19 mortality risk thus indicates direct links among environmental racism, air quality, and disproportionate death rates for Black and Indigenous communities," they said.
What Can Be Done?
"Racist research and conservation approaches must be challenged and redesigned to include justice, equity, and inclusion," said the authors. In the United States, the origins of environmentalism were heavily influenced by white men who expressed racist perspectives in their efforts to protect nature, they added.
Their prescription? Bolstering public transportation infrastructure, investing in affordable housing and health care, increasing economic opportunities, and strengthening voting rights and access. These issues are rarely considered by mainstream environmental organizations, but could reduce carbon emissions, dampen environmental hazards, enhance public health, and expand economic mobility of marginalized communities, they said.