• December 10th, 2023
  • Sunday, 10:24:36 AM

A Legacy of Toxic Racism

Photo: Sierra Club/Henrik Kam We need green roofs to protect us (Alameda, CA).


Javier Sierra


You may wonder why we Latinos, as well as other communities of color, receive a pollution punishment much more severe than white Americans. Why do so many of our communities breathe such noxious air?


It’s not an accident. It’s intentional—a legacy of toxic racism rooted in decades of segregation practices that condemned Latinos, Blacks and other people of color to live in some of the country’s least desirable places.


It’s called redlining, as in the color the federal Home Owner’s Loan Corporation used on its maps for 30 years to mark the areas of the country that allegedly did not deserve its mortgage loans because of an “infiltration of foreign born, Negro, or lower grade population.”


A new study published by Environmental Science and Technology Letters confirmed that, despite the fact that this practice was abandoned 50 years ago, its catastrophic consequences persist to this date. The residents of these redlined communities today live with more smog, particulate matter and other dangerous pollutants from cars, buses, trucks, coal burning plants and other toxic sources than their white counterparts. In short, 45 million disadvantaged people breathe noxious air in the US.


Our children and grandchildren do not deserve this legacy of toxic racism but to inherit a livable, healthy and thriving planet.


UC Berkeley Professor Joshua Apte, one of the study’s coauthors, told the Washington Post that, “if you just look at the number of people that get killed by air pollution, it’s arguably the most important environmental health issue in the country.”


To add insult to injury, a disproportionate number of sources of pollution, such as freeways, refineries, ports and other facilities of great toxicity are built in these communities.


Out of the 202 cities where the study was conducted for two years, millions of Latinos live in the worst four—Los Angeles, Atlanta, Chicago and Essex County/Newark. Even in the same polluted areas, people of color breathe air more polluted than their white counterparts.


This report agrees with countless previous surveys and studies that underline these systemic and systematic environmental injustices. A Sierra Club and Green Latinos poll found that pollution impacts the lives of 89 percent of Latinos voters; that 40 percent live, study or work dangerously close to a toxic site—such as a freeway, a refinery or a coal burning plant—and that high or very high percentages suffer from asthma, chronic bronchitis or cancer.


The solution to this national tragedy is the accelerated transition from fossil fuels to an economy of clean energy and energy efficiency. A just-released report by the American Lung Association concluded that switching to electric vehicles and clean energy could save 110,000 lives, $1.2 trillion in public health benefits across the US, and $1.7 trillion in climate benefits in the next 30 years.


The report focused on the 100 counties with the highest percentages of people of color—3 percent of the national total—and concluded that only in those, the cumulative benefits of clean energy would total $155 billion.


This generationally critical transformation would also meet the prescriptions of climate science. According to the conclusions of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, humanity must cut its dirty energy use by 43 percent by 2030 and by 100 percent by 2050 if we all are to avoid the truly catastrophic consequences of the climate crisis.


Our children and grandchildren do not deserve this legacy of toxic racism but to inherit a livable, healthy and thriving planet.



Javier Sierra writes the monthly bilingual column Sierra & Tierra.



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