Racism in the Air You Breathe: When Where You Live Determines How Fast You Die

More African Americans will die from environmental causes than from police brutality this year, yet there is no movement to stop the environmental racism that invades our neighborhoods and homes.

Two homes in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., Feb. 27, 2014
Two homes in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., Feb. 27, 2014 Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Countless African-American neighborhoods are plagued by some of the worst ongoing environmental disasters that exist on the planet. There’s often a landfill, highway, airport or oil refinery next door. Nearby you can find contaminated bus depots, nasty subway stops, plus the lead in old houses, which can lead to neurological disorders and learning difficulties (pdf).

Many of us are so accustomed to living in polluted, chronically disease-ridden neighborhoods that this environmental racism is virtually ignored in civil rights movements. Yet a closer look at where black communities exist gives rise to the sudden recognition that it’s a sinister design. The reasons are as complex and knitted into Americana as they are numerous. “People may not understand what environmental racism is,” argues environmental sociologist Robert Bullard in a conversation with The Root.

“Racism keeps lower- to middle-income people of color stuck in danger zones,” says Bullard. “African Americans making $50,000 to $60,000 per year are way more likely to live in a polluted environment than poor white families making just $10,000 per year.”

And where you live—down to your exact zip code—can determine how fast you get sick and how soon you die.

If you could maintain a daily graphic of deaths caused by environmental racism, you’d end up finding far more black people dying from pollution than from racist cops. “Many people don’t see pollution and climate change as an immediate threat,” Green for All National Director Vien Truong explains to The Root. “People of color tend to live closer to sources of pollution, from coal plants to busy roads and highways. Our kids suffer higher rates of pollution-related illnesses: One in six black kids and one in nine Latino kids struggle with asthma. In California, twice as many people are now dying from traffic-related pollution than traffic-related accidents. These are environmental problems.”

And they’re enormous, making general ignorance of them frightening. Even the Environmental Protection Agency, comically toothless despite a mandate from its Office of Civil Rights to enforce explicit Title VI provisions in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, acknowledges that (pdf) “racial and ethnic minorities and poor children may be exposed to more pollution,” with “black children twice as likely to be hospitalized for asthma and four times as likely to die from asthma as white children.”

Two years ago the NAACP released its own report (pdf) and found that close to 80 percent of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant, and nearly 40 percent of residents overall who live near coal-fired power plants are people of color. The top 12 plants with the lowest environmental-justice performance scores were within 3 miles of 2 million unsuspecting Americans—76 percent of them people of color.

In examining Eric Garner’s tragic choking death by New York City police, the Washington Post’s Max Ehrenfreund couldn’t ignore the larger cautionary tale of Garner’s asthma and how destructively prevalent the chronic disease is in black communities: “Blacks and whites actually breathe different air.”

The Center for American Progress’ Tracey Ross offers confidence that awareness will prevail, particularly if the #BlackLivesMatter movement expands its focus beyond its core. “We underestimate our ability to care about these issues,” Ross tells The Root, describing environmental-justice advocates as “the unsung heroes of our community.”

Still, Ross admits, “We do have immediate concerns that seem more pressing right now. Environmental racism is a slower, less dramatic process than someone getting shot by police.”