Amid COVID-19, environmental injustice must be recognized, rectified

Illustration of two neighbourhoods compared side to side, with one clearly being impacted by environmental harm.
Emily Bi/Senior Staff

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Wildfires, hurricanes, the COVID-19 pandemic, police brutality and increasing racial hostility are all happening at once. It feels like too much. Given the circumstances these days, “How are you?” is a painfully loaded question. Still, the impacts of these events, while taking a psychic toll on most of us, are not borne equally. 

There has been a paradox in the headlines about COVID-19 and the environment. On one hand, story after story has detailed the temporary benefits of what seems to be a largely white-collar quarantine: improved air and water quality, reduced carbon emissions, the reappearance of other species in our cities and waterways — rare sightings amid human domination of landscapes and ecosystems. 

On the other hand, for people of color, especially Black, Indigenous and Latinx communities, the pandemic has brought the disproportionate risk of falling ill and dying of the coronavirus. This increased risk is not incidental but is itself linked to cumulative environmental burdens that have compromised the immune systems and health of people living in communities often treated as sacrifice zones by our majority-white society.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified five sets of factors that increase the likelihood of racial and ethnic minorities in the United States dying of COVID-19: discrimination, health care access, occupation, income and housing. These factors and others also make individuals more likely to die from natural hazards even during nonpandemic times. Port Arthur, Texas, and the 85-mile stretch of land between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, have been dubbed “the cancer belt” and “cancer alley,” respectively, due to residents’ high rates of death from cancer. Those deaths are linked to decades of exposure to carcinogens emitted from the large number of petrochemical plants and oil refineries in the Gulf Coast region.

Similar communities in California also bear such cumulative vulnerabilities — from Black and Brown people living in the shadows of refineries and freeways to Latinx communities in the Central Valley having undrinkable water. Indigenous people in California are also disproportionately exposed to wildfire risk. Today, low-income communities and communities of color face the threat of the coronavirus in addition to other poor environmental conditions, such as air pollution. This is especially concerning given that living with poor air quality also means facing a higher risk of death from the coronavirus.

Research by UC Berkeley scholars and others on the social determinants of health has repeatedly proven that both social and environmental stressors lead to poor health outcomes. Social constructs of race and class also amplify the effects of exposure through discrimination, exclusion based on socioeconomic status and quality of the built environment in a neighborhood. Newer studies have explored the possibility that discrimination also has a genetic effect that can be passed down, making people more susceptible to unequal hazard exposure across generations.

In a brilliant seminal article, legal scholar and critical race theorist Cheryl Harris describes how the racial caste hierarchy was created early in U.S. history and then became embedded in our institutions, establishing whiteness as an extremely valuable asset that has been systematically protected by legal decisions, norms and behaviors that reinforce exclusion.

In my field of city and regional planning, we know that there is nothing neutral in how segregated communities were produced in this country. Racialized zoning, mortgage redlining, racially restrictive covenants and homeowner association bylaws all helped facilitate white flight from central cities to exclusionary zones. This zoning continues to place affordable housing sites, many of which serve majority communities of color, and industrial and toxic facilities in close proximity.

And the consequences of this history continue to reverberate: Several national studies carried out by interdisciplinary teams from the social and natural sciences have definitively linked redlining practices from the 1930s to the urban heat island effect and lack of trees in neighborhoods today.

Environmental justice advocates were the first to sound the alarm about these issues. In the early 1980s, they upended the phrase, “Not in my backyard,” or NIMBY, the catchphrase used primarily by suburban and more affluent communities in refusing to allow what they deemed undesirable land use. Fighting local battles over the discriminatory siting of waste facilities and polluting industries, those involved realized that with strength in numbers and jurisprudence, there could be a kind of “NIMBY” for the poor and disenfranchised through social mobilization based on civil rights.

Today, local organizations such as the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project and People Organizing to Demand Environmental and Economic Rights center the knowledge and voices of historically marginalized communities to advance environmental goals that improve public health, air quality, housing and access to green space. Supporting these and similar organizations financially — and through partnerships with public officials — will further integrate environmental justice in land use decision-making.

But there are more steps we must take to correct environmental injustice. We must ensure local compliance with legislation such as SB 1000, which requires any city or county where people live in environmentally overburdened census tracts, per the state’s CalEnviroScreen tool, to include environmental justice in its general plans. Benchmarking and monitoring community-collected data — and prioritizing the lived experience of those facing environmental racism — will help identify hot spots of pollution and challenge assumptions professionals make about routes of exposure to environmental toxins. It will also empower communities to participate in land use planning and public decision-making by arming them with powerful, credible data to push for policies that truly improve environmental quality.

Beyond empowerment, restorative justice and reparations for communities hurt by practices such as urban renewal, zoning and disinvestment will be crucial in rectifying injustice. And finally: education. Ensuring that K-12 education and college curricula prepare students to confront and deal with these challenges is a critical step that we must take to eliminate present and future disproportionate environmental harms on communities of color in the United States.

Charisma Acey is an associate professor of city and regional planning at UC Berkeley.