By David Lapp Jost
“I can’t breathe” is foremost the cry of suffering and dying Black people who have been killed by police, and the rallying call of a movement to bring systematic change in criminal justice. Rightfully so — securing African American communities from police violence is vital, and the movement has extraordinary momentum and is scoring major successes. But, for environmentalists, “I can’t breathe” has a deep resonance, too. Air pollution cuts off the breath of many thousands of Americans every year — heavily disproportionately people of color. In many cases, breathlessness is temporary, resulting from a non-lethal stroke or asthma attack. In tens or even hundreds of thousands of cases annually, it is permanent, due largely to air pollution-linked lung cancer and heart disease deaths. The coronavirus crisis — itself one that also kills along racialized lines, no doubt partly due to air pollution — brings this environmental crisis into focus.
As more Americans insist that Black Lives Matter, and as we envision a re-ordering of society with that premise, we would do well to ask: what political structures have delivered such poor environmental conditions, to African Americans especially? Why do we maintain an energy system that is killing and hurting so many, especially those who are most vulnerable and least responsible for causing the problem? And how might we think about assigning accountability and making progress?
The Racialized Distribution of Air Pollution
In a normal year, air pollution kills tens of thousands of Americans, disproportionately people of color, but — unreported on in coverage of Covid-19 — this year it is almost surely killing or significantly damaging far more. That burden is not falling on Americans uniformly. Remarkably, African Americans account for proportionally twice as many coronavirus deaths as white Americans. While air pollution is without a doubt only one of many factors, it almost certainly is a major factor: the links are clear. Due to an uncountable myriad of injustices, it seems highly likely that the majority of human-affecting pollutants from our energy matrix find their way into the air breathed mostly by poor, Black, and Brown people. At the very least, it is a heavily disproportionate share of pollutants. As we know, people with pre-existing lung problems and other health issues suffer worse outcomes from Covid-19. Air pollution causes these problems, and multiple studies find air pollution has a correlative and probably causal relationship to markedly worse coronavirus-related outcomes, likely increasing the chance of death by 6–16%.
Racialized energy use and consumption patterns shape adaptability in this crisis. Suburban homes allow richer, disproportionately white people more space for residences and greenery in which to relax and quarantine, ostensibly away from coronavirus. They allow freedom to move, with mostly gas-powered cars for personal transit, and more choice in where to shop safely. These luxuries demand energy, and the consequent burning of fossil fuels, which of course in the aggregate increases risk to poorer, more confined, already-poisoned people. African Americans are more than three times more likely and Hispanics more than twice as likely to rely on public transit, relative to whites. Perversely, these same patterns of living and using transit, which make minorities our country’s most environmentally sustainable demographic groups, endanger these same communities due to our hopelessly inadequate coronavirus response as a nation. It would be wrong to conclude from these results for individuals that suburban sprawl is a pandemic-safe option; urban density does not predict bad coronavirus results in the U.S., and most other developed countries have vastly outperformed the U.S. in restraining the virus despite significantly higher population densities.
Unfortunately, the $3.7 trillion of stimulus already deployed in the U.S. has completely neglected any kind of effort to green the U.S. economy, and local efforts to improve air quality due to the virus are absent. Obviously, Trump and Republican politicians would not be expected to support a green response, but Democrats have pointedly not pushed for one in a response that has been aptly labeled “Virus excludes climate – get used to it.” This stands in stark contrast to Europe, where half a trillion euros have already been dedicated to a green recovery. Considering that the pandemic is likely to last a long time, death and long-term health problems for largely poor, mainly non-white citizens breathing polluted air are the predictable consequences.
The racialized cruelty of air pollution in this pandemic fits a longer history. In the case of air pollution and energy use, environmental racism is cruelly double-sided: suffering and health consequences flow to people of color to a wildly disproportionate degree, while the benefits flow overwhelmingly to whiter (and, more generally, richer) people. Studies have shown again and again the lethal seriousness of respiratory problems from coal and gas-powered plants and from gas-burning autos. And sometimes we don’t need a study to see racialized air pollution — with a photograph one can simply witness the horror of dust from a recently destroyed former industrial smoke stack enveloping the over 80% non-white community of South Lawndale in Chicago in toxins in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, with many neighbors not even expecting the demolition.
Day-to-day air pollution is of course worse than occasional dramatic fiascos. Urban planning, real estate practices, our car-based transit system, and huge implicit and explicit fossil fuel subsidies are poisoning us all, but especially people of color. Minority neighborhoods are more likely to have fossil fuel plants positioned near them and — as every American should be taught in school — “whenever a coal plant closes, the statistical likelihood of death by any cause falls by ‘just shy of 1 percent’” in the local area. More diverse and poorer neighborhoods are also more likely to be exposed to highways and the resulting pollution from exhaust and tire abrasions.
At the very same time, the benefits of energy use flow to whiter and more opulent communities. Electricity consumption increases substantially with wealth, as do carbon-intensive flights. Electricity and gas are sometimes even far less available to non-white households, either because of utility cutoffs or simply because whole communities never got access to modern infrastructure for gas or power. Car ownership follows this trend, with middle class and wealthy Americans nine times more likely to have a vehicle, and white Americans about four times more likely to own a car than African Americans. People of color are a quarter as likely to own stocks, meaning that they don´t profit from energy stocks nearly as much as whites (or, again, the rich generally) do.
In America’s cruelly unequal cities, racially stratified commuting patterns prevail, as sub-urbanites drive and city dwellers walk or take public transit. And whiter and wealthier communities also enjoy extravagant and energy-intensive travel, recreation, and superfluous homes and cabins, often in pristine outdoor areas. It is not an exaggeration to say that by tending to consume less, live compactly, and use public transit, more urban, more non-white communities are our country’s most environmentally responsible citizens, while they bear the burden of wildly disproportionate pollution.
The Political Superstructure of Environmental Racism
How is this system that is slowly (or right now quickly) killing millions of Americans along racialized lines allowed to continue, almost unobserved? Culture is a factor. Owning a big suburban house and nice vehicles is widely understood to be part of the American Dream, after all, and the racial inequalities observed above in part reflect people pursuing that dream, and non-white Americans are in part simply restrained from realizing that goal by other racist systems that keep their wealth at 1/10th that of whites. This American Dream (nightmare) depends heavily on fossil fuels. Entrenched, big, corporate fossil fuel interests are also clearly culprits, with their extraordinary lobbying power in Congress and unwavering support from all presidents from both parties in recent decades. And our imperial wars and proxies (and fossil fuel–guzzling military) play a role, locking in long-term suppliers and demand for fossil fuels. The list goes on.
I want to propose, though, that we consider holding state and especially local governments accountable. These governments could and should be doing vastly more to protect their non-white citizens. They will also be by the easiest to directly influence in the coming years, considering that political primaries for federal races are largely over. For this purpose, I find it helpful to note the many similarities between environmental racism and police violence against African Americans. It is politically useful for some that we imagine that Trump or Republicans in Congress deny Black people safety from police or clean air. The reality is different.
The epidemic of police violence in this country occurs mostly in Democratically-controlled, liberal strongholds. Among the 15 states with the worst discrepancies between Blacks and whites in police violence, only three are consistently controlled by Republican governors and legislatures. Democratic strongholds New York, Maryland, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Illinois stand out above all for their racialized violence. Of the 15 cities with the highest rate of police killing black men, 11 are strongly Democratic leaning or even very solidly Blue. Unaccountable police departments and unions, law-and-order voters, and skin-deep antiracism are pervasive in the Democratic world.
In and outside of the U.S., the Black Lives Matter protests following George Floyd’s death have frequently been viewed as a referendum on Donald Trump in general, and a referendum on his violent response to protests. Trump has indeed been a disaster and it is vital that his political movement is defeated, but he has not been governor of every northeastern state and mayor of every Democratic city for decades. It is true that Trump and right-wing politicians inspire many protestors to enter the streets. But the militarized local police departments, unaccountable policing practices, and underfunding of alternatives to policing are almost exclusively run by ostensibly anti-racist, Democratic governments. It is local and then state governments that have power over policing practices. It is ultimately these governments that could do far more to protect African American residents, and deserve protest when they don’t. In the recent words of the Reverend Al Sharpton, “this is the time of building with accountability in the criminal justice system.”
The patterns of environmental racism exhibit close parallels. Of the 30 most air polluted urban areas in the U.S., about 22 vote heavily or overwhelmingly Democratic — and most of the Republican areas are in close proximity to polluted, Blue stronghold cities. Air pollution is overwhelmingly concentrated in “Blue States.” A partisan Democrat would no doubt point out that population, industry, and transit density in these areas are higher. This does not absolve local and state governments of the responsibility to account for the situation as it is, and work for cleaner air for their citizens by promoting public transit and rational, compact housing policies (which, it’s important to note, are policies that would also disproportionately benefit the poor and people of color). Excusing the status quo brushes aside questions of racial disparity: clearly, Democratic officials at the state and local level continuously impose vehicle and power plant pollution on communities of color that white communities would not accept, or even be asked to accept. This should be the time of building accountability in our energy system.
Local government can do a lot. They can set renewable energy goals and promote energy efficiency and solar, directly benefiting the local economy and air quality. They can adequately fund and support public transit and cyclists and reduce auto use. Building policies and utility regulations fall within their authority, and both are vitally important. Four U.S. cities derive at least 70% of their energy from renewables; that number should soar. Many cities have supported EV charging stations, parking places, and financial benefits; more could follow. Local governments can also publicize Solarize initiatives and energy efficiency programs.
State governments can do even more. With the full power to tax and spend (but without control over their fiscal policy and currency), U.S. states actually have comparable power to Eurozone member nations. Almost anything that Germany can do, New York and California can do, too — they simply choose not to. U.S. states could have their own Green New Deals, and could certainly obstruct new fossil fuel projects, shut down old ones, and smooth the way for clean energy. States can regulate and block pipelines and coal mines, tax gas and other fossil fuels, and can heavily subsidize clean power. They can develop and strengthen rail networks, and encourage shifts toward public transit.
In the 2020 election, we should work to support progressive Democrats to ensure that they win office and fight for environmental justice, among many other things. After the 2020 election, those who work to improve U.S. environmental policies will no doubt continue to face extraordinary challenges, as both of our parties and almost all major political leaders have shown deep, long-time loyalty to fossil fuel industries. We can nevertheless realize changes in various ways. We can protest and obstruct new fossil fuel projects and drive their costs to insane levels as we did with the Dakota Access Pipeline, and shut down old plants that are poisoning entire counties. We can fund environmental protection, in the U.S. and globally. We can infuse the renewable energy, public transit, and electric vehicle industries with money, and we can advocate for them. And regardless of how inaccessible or uncaring the federal government continues to be, we can work at the local level for policies that benefit our neighbors. Local and state governments could implement the most decisive energy policies in the U.S., if pushed to. And in doing all of this, we can alleviate insidious racial disparities that deny so many Americans – especially Black, Native, and Hispanic Americans — the freedom to breathe and live long, healthy lives.
Local government does not have to be one of the greatest barriers to progress. Local governments in some places have produced bright examples of real, equitable change toward sustainability, and in our sclerotic and dysfunctional national politics, local government offers one of the best mechanisms with which to exert pressure. Pushing local governments that claim to care about racism and about environmental problems to act on those convictions will be one of the best tools to address environmental racism.
About the Author: David Lapp Jost works for a peace organization. He is conscious of ways that fossil fuels exacerbate racial and economic inequality, war, and climate change. He devotes much of his spare time to promoting solar power and sustainability initiatives.
Other articles by David Jost:
Featured image: Tossing a frisbee (July 1972; Leroy Woodson), historical photos from EPA