Whether the world tracks the health of its natural resources through loss, damage, minimized impact or newly designed innovations to replenish, one constant and unfortunate stream of data flows from the impact environmental contamination has on communities of color. In fact, as various nations grapple with COVID-19, scientists and medical communities have begun to chart the estimated disparity in the disease’s exacerbation and death among African Americans. This disparity, caused in large part, by exposure to environmental contaminants including poor living conditions where exposure to lead and other toxins routinely compromise lung health, historically makes a case for racial inferiority.
Historians like Tera W. Hunter have explored the theory of the “sickly Negro” that posited Blacks as inherently predisposed to contract deadly diseases like syphilis, tuberculosis, AIDS and, perhaps, COVID-19.
It was believed that to control “black” pathogens and prevent pandemic outbreaks, segregation had to be strictly enforced. In the process, segregation buttressed beliefs in dangerous Black bodies, as city planners strategically situated Black neighborhoods amid tracks set aside for sewage runoff and the release of air and soil pollutants.
Bartow Elmore writes of the introduction of environmental racism in city planning as early as 1865 with the introduction of segregated, Jim Crow neighborhoods.
“No longer could wastewater drain from black communities into white neighborhoods, nor could the city use precious water supplies to hydrate black urbanites at the expense of whites. The success of the Jim Crow experiment depended on the complete separating of the black and white races,” Elmore discusses in the journal article Hydrology and Residential Segregation in the Postwar South: An Environmental History of Atlanta 1865-1895. “Natural resources that flowed indiscriminately between disparate communities had to be controlled by municipal agencies. For Jim Crow engineers, controlling nature provided a means to reify the boundaries between black and white worlds.”
Diseases growing out of exposure to environmental toxins rarely factored into race-based studies of disease, including those that amounted to decades-long research on asthma and tuberculosis.
“My family worked as farmers and it was nothing for the owners of fields to have the crops sprayed with chemicals while we worked,” Northeast resident Charles Grady told The Informer. “We would go low and cover our faces, but it did little good. Many of us developed asthma — not because we were Black or poor, but because our lungs were being poisoned. It is easy to believe that Black people are genetically inferior when the numbers show we are sickly; but we are sick as a condition of other people’s hatred.”
Grady, 87, whose family worked fields in Virginia, South Carolina and Mississippi, said eugenics or scientific racism often places Blacks as the source of pestilence and disease without regard for environmental racism, including being denied access, underfunding facilities in Black neighborhoods, and diverting resources to “more deserving” Americans.
“The same types of lung issues followed members of my family to St. Louis when they arrived in Carr Square — which the city called ‘Lung Block’ because of the rates of tuberculosis. Instead of St. Louis health department blaming the lung issues on the factory toxins nearby, they blamed it on diseased black bodies migrating from the South,” Grady said. As a matter of precaution, the city would eventually require quarantine and vaccination of all Blacks coming into St. Louis.
As The Washington Informer commemorates 50 years of Earth Day — a celebration that marks decades of active engagement to protect and improve the world’s natural resources — we do so shining a spotlight on the amazing job Black advocates have done in pushing the inclusion of environmental racism and environmental justice onto global agendas — as well as Black people to the dais to speak on behalf of their own communities.
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