The Environmental Movement Needs to Join the Fight Against Racism

Gina-Marie Cheeseman

It's not that white people don't "deserve" to breathe clean air. It's that everyone does. If hearing about environmental justice, racism, and white privilege makes you uncomfortable, that's ok. Maybe that uneasiness will lead to action.

The environmental movement needs to join with those fighting racism. The fact that people of color are more likely to breathe polluted air underscores just how important it is for environmentalists to combat racism.

350.org points out that confronting white supremacy is necessary to build a climate movement rooted in justice for all. 

“Race is the number one indicator for the placement of toxic facilities in this country,” the NAACP proclaims on its website. A study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency looked at the disparities in the location of particulate matter (PM)-emitting facilities. What the researchers found in regards to PM of 2.5 micrometers in diameter or less, blacks had 1.54 times a higher burden than the overall population did. They concluded that “disparities for Blacks are more pronounced than are disparities on the basis of poverty status.”

A 2019 study by the Union of Concerned Scientists looked at Asian, black, and Latino residents in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region. What researchers discovered is that on average, communities of color in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic breathe 66 percent more air pollution from vehicles than white residents do. The average concentrations of exposures for Latino residents are 75 percent higher, 73 percent higher for Asians, and 61 percent higher for blacks. White residents make up 85 percent of those living in areas with the lowest PM 2.5 pollution from vehicles and the pollution in those areas is less than half the statewide average.

Boston University School of Public Health analyzed data compiled by the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office. What researchers found is that communities with bigger populations of people of color have the highest rates of COVID-19 infection rates across 38 of the largest cities in Massachusetts. Concentrations of PM 2.5 and nitrogen oxide are highest in black and Latino communities in Massachusetts. A study by Harvard’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health linked long-term exposure to PM 2.5 pollution to a higher COVID-19 death rate.

People of color produce less air pollution but suffer more from it. Whites experience a pollution advantage on average, according to a 2019 study. They experience 17 percent less air pollution exposure than is caused by their consumption while blacks and Latinos on average bear a pollution burden of 56 percent and 63 percent excess exposure related to the exposure caused by their consumption.

What environmentalists can do to fight racism

As we fight for a cleaner environment and raise awareness about climate change, let us not forget those who are most impacted by air pollution. The first thing environmentalists can do is to speak up about racism. As Greenpeace USA Executive Director Annie Leonard stated, “The environmental community must not stay silent in the face of systemic injustice.”

Environmentalists need to not only speak out about racism but demand justice. “We demand justice for communities of color across the United States that have been subject to institutionalized inequality that has come in so many forms,” Food & Water Watch states. 

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