Environmental racism afflicts US minorities

Persons of color much more likely to live in areas afflicted by pollution and other health hazards.

By Miguel De La Torre

We are called by God to be good stewards of the earth. Unfortunately, racism gets in the way. Environmental racism, defined as the link between the degradation of the environment and the racial composition of the areas where degradation takes place, is prevalent among communities of color within the U.S. borders. According to a 2011 study conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a correlation exists between ethnicity and the counties with the most unhealthy air quality. 

Race, according to a growing body of empirical evidence, continues to be the most significant variable in determining the location of commercial, industrial and military hazardous-waste sites. Race is the most significant predictor in forecasting where the nation’s commercial hazardous waste facilities are located. 

Using 2000 U.S. Census data, people of color represent 56 percent of the population which lives less than 1.8 miles from one of the 413 commercial waste facilities. This means that of the 9 million Americans living in neighborhoods hosting one of these commercial hazardous waste facilities, more than 5.1 million are persons of color – 2.5 million Hispanics, 1.8 million African Americans, 616,000 Asians and 62,000 Native Americans. The poorer the community, the greater the risk of environmental abuse, because those economically privileged are able move away from such sites, a privilege not available to the poor – who are mostly people of color.

Forty of the 44 states with hazardous waste facilities have disproportionately high percentages of people of color living in the host neighborhoods. Out of the 149 metropolitan areas with hazardous waste sites, 105 are host neighborhoods predominately comprised of people of color. Out the 44 states, African-American neighborhoods within 38 states, Hispanic neighborhoods within 35 states, and Asian neighborhoods within 27 states are more likely to host a hazardous waste facility. 

Between 1999 and 2009, the National Academy of Science produced five environmental justice reports showing that “low-income and people of color communities are exposed to higher levels of pollution than the rest of the nation, and that these same populations experience certain diseases in greater number than more affluent white communities.” Black ethicist Emilie Townes has said that the effects of toxic waste on the lives of people of color who are relegated to live on ecologically hazardous lands are akin to a contemporary version of lynching a whole people.

Environmental racism is not limited to hazardous waste sites. Violators of pollution laws received less stringent punishments when violations occurred in non-white neighborhoods than when they occurred in white neighborhoods. Fines were often 500 percent higher in white communities than in marginalized communities. When violations occurred in minority communities, the government was slower to act, taking as much as 20 percent more time, than when violations occurred in white communities. And even when a lawsuit was brought before the Eastern District Federal Court of Virginia about the placement of landfills in predominantly black King and Queen counties (RISE v. Kay), the U.S. judge acknowledged the historical trend of disproportionately placing landfills in African-American areas but still ruled that the case failed to prove discrimination.

Environmental racism also takes a heavy toll among children of color. For example, in a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services study released in 2011, of the 7.8 percent of the population suffering from asthma, a disproportionate are of color. Asthma prevalence among poor children was highest among Puerto Ricans (23.3 percent), multiracials (21.1 percent) and African Americans (15.8 percent). Among whites the rate is 10.1 percent. It is no coincidence that the predominantly black neighborhood of central Harlem in New York City has the highest percentage of documented cases of asthma in the United States.

In 2008, African Americans had a 35 percent higher rate of asthma than whites. The worst triggers of asthma are found in abundance in central Harlem (and the South Bronx), specifically insect (cockroach) droppings, mold, mildew, diesel exhaust and cigarette smoke. African-American children living outside of Harlem are still vulnerable to asthma because 68 percent of blacks live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant. 

Nationwide, African-American children have a 500 percent higher death rate from asthma when compared to white children. Additionally, they have a 260 percent higher emergency rate, and a 250 percent higher hospitalization rate. 

And yet, Senator Jefferson Beauregard Sessions (R-AL), during a Senate hearing on the EPA budget, claimed that air pollution victims are “unidentified and imaginary.”

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