400 Years Blog #17 – Schools, Cities, and Environmental Racism

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My last couple of posts highlighted lynching, a grisly and public manifestation of white supremacy.  My next couple will touch on a more hidden form of violence: environmental racism.  I heard this term when Baltimore’s 25-year-old Freddie Gray died on April 19, 2015, due to a spinal cord injury in police custody.  In a way, the environment had been killing him slowly for years.

Freddie Gray’s family sued their landlord in 2008.  They argued that their children’s exposure to lead “played a significant part in their educational, behavioral and medical problems.” Freddie had lead levels well above those deemed safe by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Washington Post said this might explain why Gray had classroom failures and run-ins with the law. Perhaps he would have been working a 9 to 5 job, and not trying to elude the police on the streets, had he not been poisoned by peeling lead paint so prevalent in poor neighborhoods.

In Philadelphia where I work, inner-city students, mostly kids of color, are exposed to great environmental hazards.  An investigative exposé called Toxic City: Sick Schools warned of lead and another killer – asbestos.  One teacher who had been breathing one contaminated school’s air for a quarter of a century lamented, “I’m worried about my lungs, and my lungs are almost 60. My babies’ lungs — they are just developing…. How can this be happening in 2018? Are we running an experiment?”

We seem to have created experimental control groups organized by race. In The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, Richard Rothstein explains: “Disparate health outcomes for African Americans and whites are the results of racial segregation.” Due to redlining and other segregating forces, African Americans live shorter lives because they live in less-healthy neighborhoods.  The EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment indicates that people of color are much more likely to live near polluters. Black children are twice as likely to develop asthma.  68% percent of black people live within 30 miles of a coal plant. 71% percent live in counties that violate federal air pollution standards.

As we mark another Earth Day this week, the Trump administration continues to dismantle institutions built to address racial disparities. The Trump EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has further degraded weak federal environmental justice work, leading former EPA assistant associate administrator Mustafa Santiago Ali to resign in protest.  The rising tide of environmental racism threatens people of color more than ever.

  • Lesson #67: Environmental hazards kill people of color at a comparatively higher rate.
  • Lesson #68: Environmental toxins inhibit educational and professional development of many young people.
  • Lesson #69: Public schools, facing continued budget cuts, are becoming increasingly toxic environments.
  • Lesson #70: It is indisputable that there is racial disparity regarding environmental threats.
  • Lesson #71: The federal government is rolling back the progress made in environmental justice over the last two decades.

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