A fascinating recent study on environmental racism in the United States reveals the stark nature of the interaction between race, pollution, and health: even high income people of colour experience more exposure to pollutants than their white counterparts. While one might expect an interaction between race, class, and environmental exposures, the study indicates that race alone can be an important determining factor not just in exposure to pollution, but also in long term health outcomes. The researchers found that addressing the racial disparities in pollution exposure could reduce the risk of Ischemic Heart Disease by roughly 7,000 people of colour annually, which is no small potatoes.
How is this kind of disparity possible even at higher income levels, where one might assume that wealth creates protection from pollution? That’s what got the researchers interested, and one possible theory is the concentration of residents in the urban areas where smog is densest. What they found is that high income people of colour are more likely to live in pollution-rich downtown cores, where they’re exposed to high numbers of outdoor pollutants. High income whites, on the other hand, tend to settle in less contaminated areas, thus limiting their health risks from pollution. Here, demographics and race interact to create a deadly mix.
Their methodology involved the comparison of Census statistics against mapping of pollution in urban areas, with an ultimate determination that: ‘Nationally, population-weighted mean NO2 concentrations are 4.6 ppb (38%, p<0.01) higher for nonwhites than for whites.’ These have significant implications for identifying communities that may have a high rate of environmental diseases — and a high rate of environmental racism and injustice that needs to be resolved, as in cities with a very high pollution rate, there are also communities of colour who are experiencing that pollution in a disproportionate way.
It’s not just that people of colour experience more pollution than whites — overall, they generate less than the white community does. The Black community, for instance, generates 20% less air pollution than whites. Thus, the disproportionality is even more extreme, and even more disgusting. As is common with other social ills, the white community generates the bulk of the problem, while people of colour bear the brunt of the impact due to structural imbalances that have contributed to inequalities in our way of life, demographics, and more.
This illustrates the profound and pervasive nature of racism in the United States, and the importance of acknowledging and confronting racial disparities. In a world where whites like to pretend that race isn’t an issue, and that we have moved on to a ‘post-racial’ existence filled with unicorns and happy little flowers, the blunt truth is that racial inequalities play out every day, and they play out across all social classes, as this study starkly illustrates — and this is only one of many cases where wealthy people of colour are still at a disadvantage when compared to their white counterparts. The assumption that wealth and class ‘equality’ will somehow fix everything and address racial problems is disproved by studies like this, which demonstrate that, class factors aside, race still plays an important role.
In rural areas, there are similar disparities along racial lines, showing that the problem isn’t confined to urban cores. Where there’s pollution, nearby residents tend to be people of colour, and while again there are class factors at work, race is an overwhelming individual factor. Rural Native people, for example, are disproportionately exposed to pollution, contributing to environmental health problems in a community already beset by health problems created through colonialism and imperialism and creating issues compounded through generations.
Many people in the United States seem to have trouble detangling race and class issues. While the two are closely interdependent and have many intersections, there are also issues that happen independently of each other, and involve specifically race-based inequalities, not necessarily class-based ones. This is one such example, where researchers are clearly demonstrating that the root demographics here have to do with race, not class. When members of a marginalised social group across all economic classes are experiencing such a radical disparity, it’s a sign that something is deeply wrong, and clearly, something needs to shift.
While environmental classism is a tremendous issue, and it intersects with environmental racism, the two problems don’t completely overlap.
Environmentally overall, dominant social groups need to address the fact that pollution and environmental degradation are persistent problems, and some people are generating a much larger share than others, yet experiencing a smaller proportion of the results, which is manifestly unjust. If wealthy white communities were bearing their share of the pollution they generated, action on environmental issues would be much swifter and more decisive. And it wouldn’t just come in the form of luxury green toys like hybrid cars and other feel-good measures people could use to make themselves feel like they’re doing something important for the environment.
This is something that we all face together, and cannot isolate into problems of individualism. Yet, not all of us are facing the same things, and this is something the white community needs to confront, particularly the middle and upper-class white community, which is highly insulated from environmental problems not simply by virtue of being wealthy, but also by being white. Until whites can acknowledge this, that their race alone is clearly playing a key role in their interactions with the environment and their health, they can continue to cling to the idea that class is the problem, and that solving involves a capitalist approach where simply making more money will end inequality.
Capital is not the answer, and it never was. Capitalism is part of the problem, if anything. Any effective solution to social and structural inequalities must include anti-racism, because otherwise, it won’t be successful.
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Image: Tokyo Smog, Romain Guy, Flickr.