Environmental racism – A magnifying glass on American racism
In 1953 and 1961, two freeways ran through Boston’s Chinatown against the will of residents, displacing hundreds of families, in order to ease downtown traffic and allow white people living in the suburbs to commute into town by car.
Highways have moved more than houses. Clean air, on the other hand, is long gone. In 2018, Boston Chinatown still had the highest level of vehicle emissions in Massachusetts.
This incident is not an isolated event for communities of color, but an example of widespread environmental racism. It highlights the continued exposure of structural American racism that imposes a disproportionate burden of environmental risks on people of color, in the context of global warming and environmental degradation.
First, in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic United States, spanning Washington, DC, and 12 states, residents of color are exposed to significantly higher PM2.5 emissions from vehicles than their white counterparts. Specifically, PM2.5 exposure for Latin American, Asian, and African American residents is 42%, 40%, and 30% higher than the regional average, respectively, while exposure is 19% lower on average for white residents.
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, this disparity reflects decades of discriminatory transportation policies that have left communities of color living in segregated areas with insufficient access to public transportation and near highways.
During the freeway building boom of the 1950s to 1960s in the United States, the practice of interstate construction passing through neighborhoods largely inhabited by people of color – where land was cheap and political opposition weak – was so common that critics gave it a name. : “White roads through dark rooms.”
Second, using data from Surface Urban Heat Island (SUHI), the research found that in all but six of the 175 largest U.S. cities, the average person of color lives in an area with summer daytime temperatures higher than non-Hispanic whites.
SUHI data quantifies the contribution of city buildings, roads and infrastructure to additional heat exposure temperatures. As the graph shows, people of color have approximately 0.5, 1.8, 1.4 and 1.3 degrees Celsius higher SUHI exposure than white people in different climatic zones respectively.
Among the underlying drivers of these disparities is a correlation between hotter neighborhoods and racist federal housing practices established in the 1930s called “redlining.”
Rated by federal authorities as too dangerous for home loans and investments, formerly demarcated neighborhoods have fewer environmental amenities that help purify and freshen the air. The tree canopy, for its part, is about half that of the highest-rated predominantly white neighborhoods, according to a study of 37 U.S. cities published in Nature.
Third, the damage caused by natural disasters and subsequent relief efforts have exacerbated the racial wealth gap in the United States, and this has broadened the definition of environmental racism in America.
Whites have typically accumulated wealth after natural disasters such as wildfires, floods, and tornadoes. But among other racial or ethnic groups, disasters with damages greater than $10 billion could result in a financial loss of up to $29,000.
Researchers found racial disparities at nearly every stage of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) aid application process, stemming from differences in tax revenues and real estate values, among other issues.
For example, areas with a higher percentage of black residents are less likely to get an inspection from FEMA for repair funds. When homeowners in predominantly black areas finally had their applications approved, FEMA awarded them an average of 5-10% less money than applicants in white areas.
Environmental racism is one that could easily be overlooked – the intensity of green spaces or the placement of highways in neighborhoods is not often seen through a racial lens. But it’s there if you breathe.
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