Environmental issues play a part in layers of systemic and structural racism


A recent study confirms what community members and environmental justice advocates have been saying for years: people of color in the United States suffer greater harm from air pollution than White people.

The study, from the online journal Science Advances, found that communities of color are disproportionately exposed to higher amounts of a fatal air pollutant.

“Systemic disparity exists at all income levels. Consistent with a large body of evidence, we find that racial disparities are not simply a proxy for economic-based disparities. POC (people of color) at every income level are disproportionately exposed by the majority of sources,” according to the authors of the study.

This kind of exposure to pollution and other environmental inequalities, like the amount of tree cover in lower-income neighborhoods and communities of color, contributes to health problems while also drawing a line to the ways communities experience divestment of resources and access to health care and education, says Cheryl Teelucksingh, a professor in the sociology department at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada. There, she works with local and national organizations and commissions on environmental justice, and focuses her work on looking at issues of race related to environmental justice.

She took some time to talk about this recent study, and others like it, and the connections these environmental issues have to systemic and institutional racism and inequality. (This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. )

Q: The Washington Post reported on this study, finding that people of color in the United States are exposed to disproportionately higher amounts of fatal air pollution, or ambient fine particulate air pollution. The analysis reveals how decisions about where to build highways and industrial plants are still causing harm to communities of color today, according to the Post. Can you talk a bit about how these decisions, regarding the locations of things like highways and industrial plants, are made?

A: These types of environmental harms to communities of color are often part of government, and sometimes corporations, land use planning processes. Over time, they lead to disinvestment in neighborhoods where communities of color and poor people live.

What happens, then, is that White neighborhoods, or more affluent neighborhoods, are better able to protect themselves against what is often talked about as being undesirable land uses (things like highways or polluting facilities). These more affluent neighborhoods have the time, the social networks, and the resources to, for example, attend meetings, such as community consultations, to advocate so that those types of undesirable land uses don’t end up in their neighborhoods.

As a result, the natural location for a lot of undesirable land uses ends up being in communities of color. Sometimes people think, ‘Oh, it’s the lower property values in neighborhoods of color that makes it make sense to put highways there, or to put industrial plants there.’ In fact, it’s the lack of procedural justice components, and the ability of more affluent neighborhoods to protect themselves. This is how you can sort of see that the problems of environmental injustices and environmental racism are part of a broader practice of systemic and structural racism.

Q: What does the burden that these communities bear, look like environmentally? What are some of the consequences of this level of exposure to pollutants?

A: The pollutants end up affecting them, obviously, in terms of negative health outcomes. The studies coming out of the U.S. and other types of studies that have happened, both nationally in the U.S. and internationally, have highlighted that communities of color are disproportionately dealing with all types of respiratory problems that are chronic, and tends to have a greater impact on younger children. The negative health outcomes will also stigmatize those neighborhoods, so that…

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