Civil Rights icon John Lewis said “When you see something that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something. To do something. Our children and their children will ask us, ‘What did you do? What did you say?’”
In the midst of a global pandemic being horribly mismanaged by our government, federal data secured by The New York Times from the CDC says that black and Latino Americans are three times as likely to become infected as their white neighbors and nearly twice as likely to die from the virus.
Part of the reason for this grotesque injustice is that far more people of color have essential jobs they cannot do from home, they live in more congested areas, they need to use public transportation, and they have much less access to health care. But another key reason for the staggeringly high rates of disease and death being suffered by people of color is environmental racism, which makes race a comorbidity for COVID-19.
What is environmental racism? Environmental group Greenaction says, “Environmental racism refers to the institutional rules, regulations, policies or government and/or corporate decisions that deliberately target certain communities for locally undesirable land uses and lax enforcement of zoning and environmental laws, resulting in communities being disproportionately exposed to toxic and hazardous waste based upon race.”
Others define environmental racism as the way in which minority neighborhoods are burdened with a disproportionate number of environmental hazards, including toxic waste facilities, garbage dumps, and other sources of environmental pollution and foul odors that lower quality of life. This can mean unsafe or unhealthy work conditions where few regulations for poor workers exist, or are enforced, and in neighborhoods uncomfortably close to toxic materials. Either way, it is well documented that communities of color and low-income communities are disproportionately impacted by polluting industries, hazardous waste facilities and lax regulation of these industries.
Indeed, according to a 2018 article in The Atlantic, “the EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment released a study indicating that people of color are much more likely to live near polluters and breathe polluted air”, and the study’s authors report that, “results at national, state, and county scales all indicate that non-whites tend to be burdened disproportionately.” The study finds people of color disproportionately exposed to particulate matter linked to serious health problems including cancer, lung disease, heart disease, asthma, low birth weights, and high blood pressure.
Other research on environmental racism over the years has shown that it pervades all aspects of African Americans’ lives. In addition to their close proximity to hazardous and toxic waste sites, industrial pollution, and fossil fuel burning plants, these neighborhoods must deal with environmentally unsound housing, asbestos in schools, unsafe tap water, along with homes and playgrounds cursed by lead paint and polluted soil. No wonder then that the legacies of environmental racism in the United States have left historically marginalized communities of color at much greater risk from Covid-19. As US House Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently argued, “COVID-19 deaths are disproportionately spiking in Black and Brown communities. Why? Because the chronic toll of redlining, environmentalracism, and the wealth gap are underlying health conditions. Inequality is a comorbidity.”
350 Spokane and its Interfaith Climate Change Committee are working to change these systems oppressing people of color and poor people in Spokane.
Advocacy is the process of stakeholders making their voices heard on issues that affect their lives and the lives of others at the local, state, and national level. It also means helping policymakers find specific solutions to persistent problems. When done effectively, advocacy influences public policy by providing a conduit for individuals and organizations to voice an opinion.
As people of faith, we on our Interfaith Committee believe in the need for prayer and action to address the injustice of environmental racism. We invite you to consider taking both of these paths in moving our hearts and institutions towards greater environmental justice.
“Let us pray as we reflect on some of the injustices resulting from this form of racism:
- “Three out of five African Americans and Latino American live in communities with abandoned toxic waste sites.
- “Forty-six percent of USA housing units for the economically poor, mostly people of color, are within a mile of factories that reported toxic emissions to the Environmental Protect Agency.
- “African American children are five times more likely to be victims of lead poising than Caucasian children.
- “Asthma and air pollution are linked. African American populations are concentrated in cities that failed the EPS ambient air quality standards. African Americans and Latinos are almost three times more likely than Caucasians to die from asthma.
“We beg for both forgiveness and conversion as we open our hearts and minds in communal prayer.”
- Organize a vigil or protest. Protests and demonstrations are powerful ways to combat environmental racism in your community. These can be coordinated in response to events that happen around you. For example, if someone puts racial graffiti on a building, you could get together with others to paint over the graffiti.
- Participate in local, state and national legislation that concern environment justice such as zoning, siting, permitting, housing, environmental laws. Become informed of the issues; ask questions; share your concerns.
- Write letters to the editor of your local paper about what you have learned about environmental racism and justice and how it relates to your local community. Use concrete examples, share personal stories or ask for more coverage of such stories.