Race is the most significant predictor of a person living near contaminated air, water, and soil, as land-use policies made in the 1930s and ‘40s continue to have a lasting and detrimental impact in Black and brown communities today. These policies coupled with the insatiable demand for energy have created communities referred to as sacrifice zones: low-income and racialized communities shouldering more than their fair share of environmental harms related to pollution, contamination, toxic waste, and heavy industry.
As our nation shifts toward clean and sustainable energy it is imperative that air pollution and the health and well-being of Black and brown communities be centered in this transition. We need a just transition to a clean energy future that learns from our past and seeks to avoid the worst impacts of climate change while making sure alternative energy solutions do not exacerbate existing health and environmental inequalities. Finding the right path to a just transition will require policymakers to understand the connection between green infrastructure, race, and place.
We must begin to reframe the energy conversation around the need for health benefits in Black and brown communities built upon discriminatory state land-use practices isolating people of color in unhealthy neighborhoods with high air pollution and poorer health standards. A recent study from Harvard’s Chan School of Public Health found the type, size, and location of renewable energy deployment dramatically benefits both the climate and human health in the Mid-Atlantic. Conversely, in the District of Columbia census tracts with a majority Black population are disproportionately targeted for coal-burning plants, landfills, and toxic waste contamination from the Anacostia. This disproportionate exposure to poor air quality, along with little or no access to quality parks or other positive environmental benefits, results in Black and brown communities facing increased risk for health burdens and a decreased quality of life.
Asthma serves as very powerful example – it is well documented that air pollution has profound impacts on the U.S. childhood asthma epidemic. Black children are more than twice as likely to have asthma, at 15.7% compared to white children at 7.1%. The most concerning fact is that Black children die at four times the rate of white children with asthma. Asthma health disparities are even higher in D.C., where Black children ages nine and under are over 50% more likely to have asthma compared to other states. From having double the infection rate of asthma to four times the fatality rate compared to their white peers, racist land-use policies are a key driver for the differences in asthma health outcomes. Asthma can serve as a surrogate for other health outcomes in Black communities – cardiovascular disease, infant mortality rates and COVID-19 to name a few.
The good news is today we have an opportunity to correct past injustices, if Congress uses clean energy as a lever to help remedy racist land-use policies of the past. While policymakers and advocates work toward mitigation and adaptation to climate change, especially in D.C., it is important to remember that, while everyone is affected by a degrading environment, not everyone is affected equally.