Environmental Racism In The US: Insidious, Unchecked & Made Worse By Covid-19

5 Mins Read

By: Ari Kelo

From unleashing toxic pollutants in neighborhoods populated by people of color to building oil pipelines on indigenous lands, environmental racism has a long and disturbing history in the United States. Despite this, most injustices caused by environmental racism have gone unchecked and unresolved.

The Covid-19 pandemic has made this clear, revealing the structures in place which encourage these racial injustices. With Black Americans 2.4 times more likely to die of Covid-19 than White Americans, we must ask: How did we let this happen? And how can we possibly see justice?

Covid-19 disproportionately affects people of color

So far, startling numbers have revealed how people of color are disproportionately at risk of contracting the coronavirus.

For example, in New Mexico — which contains parts of the Navajo Nation — the Covid-19 outbreak has been especially deadly. There, indigenous people are eight times more likely to die from Covid-19 than their White neighbors. And for the state as a whole, the mortality rate for indigenous people is 47% above their actual share of the population.

The numbers are just as alarming for Black Americans. According to recent research, Black people amounted to 25% of all deaths from Covid-19 in the US so far, despite only representing 13% of the overall population.

Put in perspective, this infographic from the APM Research Lab highlights the death rates from Covid-19 across races.

Credit: APM Research Lab

These numbers aren’t statistical anomalies. Instead, they represent how easily the US has discarded the lives of people of color. With almost 42% of the frontline made up of people of color, the US has provided a mass death sentence. These workers are often risking their lives, without choice, due to stifling economic oppression and forced state reopenings.

Yet nationwide, research has found that white people are less likely to die from Covid-19 than any other racial group. Rather, the mortality rate for white Americans is actually 12.4 percentage points below their actual share of the population.

This begs the question — how are White Americans enjoying more protections from Covid-19 at the direct expense of people of color? Both systemic and environmental racism play a role in this ugly truth.

How unchecked environmental racism exacerbates Covid-19 outbreaks

Beyond the several institutional reasons behind the heightened Covid-19 mortality rates for people of color, preexisting environmental injustices are also a leading cause.

For example, in mid-April, a predominately Latino neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side — Little Village — woke up one morning surprised to see a cloud of dust had settled over the entire area.

The dust had resulted from a non-emergency demolition of the Crawford Coal Plant, a facility protested from its start for polluting the surrounding, Latino neighborhoods. A key environmental injustice, this plant has further endangered nearby residents by plummeting the air quality with widespread dust amid a respiratory virus.

The neighborhood was not warned of the potential dust, nor were city officials — who were told the dust would remain contained to the lot where the demolition had taken place.

“The fear and anxiety that residents feel about COVID-19 have only been exasperated by this situation,” said Alderman Michael Rodriguez.

Yet this is only one instance of how preexisting environmental injustices have endangered people of color since Covid-19.

Across the country, people of color face elevated risks of living in areas with higher levels of lead and air pollution. Low air quality has also been tied to shortened life expectancies and compromised immune systems. These factors make those exposed all the more vulnerable to complications or death from Covid-19.

New research confirms environmental racism

New, experimental research has confirmed this possibility. A recent study demonstrated that these levels of high air pollution (through high particulate matter) may increase the risk of death from Covid-19.

What’s more, 78% of Black Americans live within 30 miles of a coal plant — a recipe for respiratory health complications. In addition, 71% of the Black population and 80% of Latinos live in places which violate federal air pollution regulations.

This makes the EPA’s recent decision to no longer enforce air pollution rules during Covid-19 especially unjust. Without even basic governmental protections, the air pollution that disproportionately affects Americans of color will only continue to spike Covid-19 deaths.

Doing something about environmental racism

Already, Black and Brown communities have faced needless and disproportionate losses from Covid-19. These mortality rates came at the hand of institutional and environmental racism, but we don’t have to let this continue.

Yet true justice is hard to find without immediate change. Until we remedy the environmental injustices rampant in the United States, people of color will continue to suffer at disproportionate rates. Covid-19 has only revealed and exacerbated this truth. Now, it is up to us to correct these wrongs and pave a more just way forward.

But even with future change, we cannot undo the deaths we have seen so far. In truth, the United States has failed to protect its own citizens.

Rather, it has allowed its countless instances of environmental racism to jeopardize Black and Brown lives. It has put people of color unwillingly onto the frontline, where they often risk their lives to afford to live. It has provided unsatisfactory health infrastructure, economic relief, and governmental protection to those who need it most.

One proposed way to seek some form of justice for all this is through reparations.

AOC suggests idea of reparations for people of color

Last month, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez outlined the idea of reparations for people of color affected by the coronavirus on Twitter.

“The chronic toll of redlining, environmental racism, wealth gap, etc. ARE underlying health conditions,” she said, in reference to the racial disparities among Covid-19 deaths.

“Inequality is a comorbidity,” she added. Indeed, the only way to prevent racial disparities in public health going forward is to deconstruct the systems that allow environmental racism to prosper.

This battle begins with reparations, but it will not end until everyone experiences their full right to health.

Travel - theRising | Demystifying Environmental Sustainability

This story originally appeared in theRising and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalistic collaboration to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

Lead image courtesy of Climate Justice Alliance.


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