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REYES: Racial disparities in environmental quality are political

Opinions Column: Free as in Libre

We all need a health-promoting environment. Without it, a number of social and economic problems can arise for individuals and communities at large. But not everyone has access to a healthy environment as evidenced by where pollution-producing facilities are located. While some may argue that these facilities need to be located somewhere, it is the likelihood of their siting in Black, Latino and working class and low-income communities that calls into question the fairness of these decision making procedures. How can we espouse a culture of democracy and equality when immutable characteristics like race, ethnicity and class determine your health outcomes through aspects of your community’s built and natural environment? When addressing disparities in environmental quality, it is important to understand what factors contribute to this kind of inequity and how these problems manifest themselves geographically. To advance an intersectional agenda of racial and economic justice, identifying the cause, consequences and implications of all types of inequity is necessary and foundational. 

Researchers have shown that there is a strong relationship between the socioeconomic status and race or ethnicity of a neighborhood with the locally unwanted land uses (LULUs) sited there. A recent report by the Clean Air Task Force and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) highlight a number of alarming statistics with regards to the impact of oil and natural gas operations on Black citizens in the United States. Notably, more than 6.7 million Black Americans live in the 91 counties with oil refineries — that is approximately 17 percent of the Black population. Within this discussion, it is crucial that the widespread impact of air pollutants is addressed — since air pollutants can drift for miles, urban communities are also at risk of exposure to these toxic pollutants which are generally produced in more rural areas. This emphasizes how the negative influence of certain pollutants, such as those that diffuse through the air, crosses geopolitical lines of property and state, imploring us to think more systemically and comprehensively about solutions to these issues.

Empowered by personal experiences and scientific evidence, activists in the movement for Environmental Justice (EJ) have mobilized residents and other stakeholders to ensure all people can enjoy and benefit from a high quality built and natural environment. While the claim of low-income people, particularly poor people of color, living in close proximity to environmental toxins is well-founded, questions about what the economic drivers of environmental injustices are is hotly debated. These economic forces undeniably intersect with politics, legal matters, moral arguments and more, which can further obfuscate the discussion on appropriate public policy responses. But evidence from research on the determinants of environmental injustices refutes the notion that firms specifically intend on discriminating against certain racial and ethnic groups. Therefore, to uncover the drivers of environmental inequality, academics and activists have used theories of social capital to explain the influence of social, cultural and political connections in how our lives are structured. 

Using a social capital lens, poor people are disadvantaged in the political process because of time and monetary constraints and the dominance of affluent individuals in political decision-making. Thus, firms that locate their polluting facilities in a community and the households that are located there ultimately influence the distribution of pollution. More pollution will make the location less desirable, driving wealthier households with more resources to move out, exacerbating the racial wealth gap. As a result, local housing and land values will fall, making the neighborhood more affordable for low-income households a disproportionate share of which are households of color. Since people choose neighborhoods to live in on the basis of local amenities and costs, the demographics of a community follow the spatial distribution of pollution. This supports the idea that a complex set of socioeconomic and political barriers are the driving forces behind environmental health disparities, not individual preferences or decisions. 

Since the consumption of environmental quality increases as incomes rise, efforts to improve environmental quality in a poor community will result in rising costs that force the poor out — in part because they lack the social capital to acquire jobs that pay enough to meet the new cost of living. If based on positive economic theories whereby households with the highest willingness to pay for a clean environment do so, then the poor living closest to pollution seems to be economically “efficient.” But a society that bases a person’s ability to access a health-promoting environment on their income is devoid of fairness and equality. People living in polluted communities are being denied their rights of due process and equal protection under the law, a gross miscarriage of justice that must be addressed. Advancing a multi-faceted economic and environmental justice struggle can empower poor communities of color politically and actualize a just future where we all can live in a healthy environment. 

Thalya Reyes is an Edward J. Bloustein School of Public Policy master's candidate for public policy and city and regional planning. Her column, "Free as in Libre," runs on alternate Tuesdays.


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