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These 4 disastrous climate change events affected Black Americans disproportionately…
Racism & Climate Change
James Baldwin, the iconic American novelist, playwright, poet, and activist uttered these words in the 1960s during the civil rights movement: “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”1 Fifty years later, racism is still a systemic scourge, a grave pathology that continues to imprison all of humanity. This must change for our biological, psychological, social, and spiritual health to take root and flourish. Generations of structural racism and trauma have laid the foundation for the current adverse sequelae of climate change, and ultimately that of environmental toxic exposures, for the Black community.
The Black American Experience
To be a Black individual in this country is an opportunity to model to all of humanity the meaning of grit, resiliency, empathy, healing, and morality. To survive in the face of historical systemic oppression that chokes humanity is a victory that transcends generations. Time and time again, Black people have had to rise from the ashes of oppression like newborn phoenixes, each time stronger and more resilient, despite having been burned by countless acts of hatred. Yet as history repeats itself, we are provided with new instances of injustice too.
Institutionalized racism contributes to environmental injustice. From American chattel slavery to the present-day issue of climate change, Blacks have always been set up to fail, and climate change is directly fueled by economic exploitation. Genocide, slavery, and colonialism have all contributed to deep, unconscious racial views that influence behaviors and responses to climate disasters, as well as public policies guiding climate mitigation, adaptation, and disaster response within vulnerable populations.
According to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) 2012 “Coal Blooded” study, communities of color breathe in 40% more polluted air than white communities across the US.2 As a result of environmental racism, people of color are more likely to live near sites of industrial pollution and toxic waste. African Americans make up 13% of the US population, and 68% of African Americans live within a 30-mile radius of coal-fired power plants compared with 56% of White Americans.2 Living in these areas exposes them to toxins that can lead to many medical problems such as heart disease, asthma, cancer, birth defects, and neuroinflammatory processes that contribute to neurocognitive disorders across the entire lifespan.
Climate injustice is the unequal distribution of benefits and damages related to climate change. When financial stakeholders are not held accountable for the adverse impacts, forces leading to pollution of air, land, water, and global climate warming are left unchecked. Individuals who are poor and disadvantaged often bear the brunt of climate change, including acidifying oceans, droughts, floods, rising sea levels, heatwaves, and wildfires. The negative effects of climate change are further exacerbated by environmental toxic exposures; both are rooted in the reliance on a fossil fuel economy, which not only drives global warming but is the source of air, water, and land pollution.
The inequalities that turn extreme weather events into disasters or human catastrophes mirror the inequalities that cause the disproportionate loss of Black and economically disadvantaged life across the globe. Classic examples include Hurricane Katrina, the 1995 Chicago Heatwave, Altgeld Gardens in Chicago, and Louisiana’s Chemical Corridor, among many others. These events demonstrate the role that climate change and racism play in making the Black community vulnerable.
Hurricane Katrina was an awakening to the human costs of climate change. In 2005, this category 5 hurricane hit the primarily African American neighborhoods of New Orleans East and the Lower Ninth Ward, resulting in the loss of more than 80% of African American homes.2 Although Black residents had been hit hardest by the storm, they once again found themselves shunted to the back of the line for government disaster assistance. Areas slated for immediate redevelopment were those that had received the least amount of water — areas where White citizens lived. New Orleans East and the Lower Ninth Ward were not slated for redevelopment and were instead to be converted to green space.2-3
Slow federal, state, and local responses helped shed light on the way America sees race and racism. As stated by Nils Gilman, PhD:
Katrina provides an unprecedented opportunity to communicate that ‘racism’ is not just a matter of the psychology of hatred but is instead also a matter of the racial structure of political and economic inclusion and exclusion. This is one lesson from Katrina that social science should help communicate. Moreover, we should not blinker ourselves: this message is one that is deeply opposed by powerful political forces in the United States today.4
The effects of Hurricane Katrina revealed how racial discrimination before the natural disaster helped contribute to the damages and impacts it had on the communities of the Gulf Coast, mainly people of color. Tens of thousands of residents fled the city and never returned; nearly 1 in 3 Black residents have not returned to the city after the storm.5
The slow rebuilding of Black communities and neighborhoods as well as the environmental hazards from floodwaters pose major health risks for these communities, making it difficult to for them return. The response to Katrina, Hurricane Harvey, and more recently the extreme cold spell in Houston, demonstrates how racial injustice is fostered by the nation’s belief that the economy is more important than basic human needs during disasters. Katrina’s differential impacts on the Black community is well documented, with acute disaster impacts, recurrent posttraumatic stress disorder, as well as the repeated and complex trauma of the many displaced African Americans.2-5
1995 Chicago Heatwave
This heatwave in Chicago in 1995 is another example of how climate change has disproportionally harmed the Black community. The heatwave led to nearly 740 heat-related deaths in Chicago in less than 1 week.6 These victims were predominantly low-income, elderly African American residents who could not afford air conditioning and did not open windows or doors at night because of their fear of crime in their neighborhoods. According to Eric Klinenberg, PhD, the map of the heat-related deaths mirrors the map of poverty.7 Many Blacks lived in areas of substandard housing and less cohesive neighborhoods and, therefore, found themselves victim to the slow response of authorities; to this day no official death toll has been determined.6
Factors that contributed to the heatwave include the urban heat island effect, which raised nocturnal temperatures by more than 3.6°F, inadequate warnings and responses, power failures, and a temperature inversion that resulted in stagnated air.6-8
One of the first public housing developments built in the US, Altgeld Gardens is a Chicago Housing Authority public housing project located on the far south side of the city. It was built between 1944 and 1945 to fulfill the need for improved housing for returning African American veterans from WWII. The population is 95% African American, with a $7500 a year per capita income.9 It is infamously known as “Chicago’s toxic donut,” as a result of having the highest concentration of hazardous waste sites in the US.
Numerous manufacturing plants, landfills, steel mills, and waste dumps border the 190-acre Altgeld Gardens site. Approximately 50 landfills and 382 industrial facilities, including the Acme Steel plant and the Pullman factory, many of which were unregulated, are located in this area.10 This area has had 250 leaking underground storage tanks on sites surrounded by rivers and lakes, making the water quality toxic for human consumption and recreation.9-10 Toxicology studies in the 1990s found high and dangerous levels of many toxins including lead, mercury, DDT, PCBs, PAHs, xylene, and other heavy metals.10 Residents were exposed to hazardous fumes and asbestos from nearby factories and construction sites. The community’s low-income status and minority population gave them less political power to fight against toxic conditions. Residents were faced with multiple health complications secondary to these poor conditions.9-11
Despite these deplorable conditions, Altgeld Gardens is regarded as a birthplace of the environmental justice movement.12 Hazel Johnson, a resident of Altgeld Gardens, created the People for Community Recovery in 1979 to combat the environmental injustice and racism. The group protested to improve the conditions of their community and successfully held companies responsible for cleaning the pollution and waste they created.
Johnson and her organization partly inspired President Bill Clinton to sign Executive Order 12898, which called for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to instate environmental justice principles into their work so that no groups may be disproportionately burdened by the consequence of pollution.12 In March 2017, then President Donald Trump proposed his budget, which cut the EPA’s funding by at least 31% and downsized its staff by 21%.9 New proposals to reduce staff and resources for the Office of Research and Development, which provides scientific expertise to monitor polluters and prosecute those that do not comply with the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, were implemented as a result of these cuts. Today, Altgeld Gardens remains one of the poorest communities in the country; 90% of the population is Black and 63% live below the poverty line.13 The community accounts for the highest percentage of individuals living in poverty and the lowest per capita income in the city.
Louisiana Chemical Corridor
In 1987, Jacobs Drive in St Gabriel, Louisiana, received the nickname Cancer Alley after a surge in cancer cases. As cases rose in surrounding areas, the area grew to include an 85-mile stretch along the Mississippi River. Previously known as the petrochemical corridor before the surge in cancer rates, the area is located along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans in the River Parishes of Louisiana, and is home to numerous industrial plants. Residents are primarily low-income African Americans.
In 2000, the Toxic Release Inventory data ranked Louisiana second in the nation for total onsite chemical releases, third for total releases within the state, and fourth for total on- and offsite releases.14-15 To put it in perspective, in 2000 Louisiana’s population was about 4.5 million and produced almost 9.4 million pounds of waste. Seven of the 10 plants with the largest combined on- and offsite releases, and 4 of the 10 plants with the largest onsite releases are located in Cancer Alley. Meanwhile, in 2002, Louisiana had the second-highest death rate from cancer in the United States.14-15 The national average was 206 deaths per 100,000, and Louisiana’s rate was 237.3 deaths per 100,000.
The Chemical Corridor exemplifies how lawmakers put profit over individual’s lives. Many lawmakers and economists see the petrochemical industry as an economic gain for struggling states. Since Louisiana competes with other places for these plants, community demands for regulation are considered bad for business. This tension between economic growth and health concerns has played out for years. Beverly Wright, PhD, director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, has advocated for communities in the chemical corridor for more than 3 decades. According to Wright, they have won a few fights; they prevented some plants from being built and procured relocation funds for an entire community.16 Nonetheless, additional plants have been built since the 1990s.
Inadequate action to address climate change is partially due to the racism that is integral to the power structures that sustain the global socioeconomic system. About 70% of the country’s contaminated waste sites are located near low-income housing.17 An analysis by the Associated Press suggested 2 million individuals live within a mile of 1 of the 327 Superfund sites vulnerable to climate change-related flooding, and most of them are in low-income communities and communities of color.17 The EPA estimated 1.5 million people of color live in areas vulnerable to contamination.17
The late honorable Martin Luther King Jr, PhD, wrote that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”18 To stop climate change, we must worry about the long-term consequences of our collective behavior. At the center of climate justice movements is the fundamental principle that the threats posed by climate change are a consequence of unequal economic and social power relations. Thus, climate justice is inseparable from social justice. Solidarity with the victims of climate change will involve addressing political and economic stakeholders. It will involve campaigning for reparative justice, preparing for relocation as extreme weather strikes, and acknowledging the need to redistribute resources so individuals are not destined to leave their homes.
We must remain vigilant and insist on an analysis of climate change that encompasses many unique perspectives. There are only 2 possible endings to this story: Either we destroy the planet and subsequently destroy each other, or we rise to the occasion.
Dr Vieux is Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at Garnet Health Medical Center and is on the editorial board for Academic Psychiatry. Dr Miranda is a child and adolescent psychiatry fellow at Northwell Health. Dr Maginley is a practicing psychiatrist at Garnet Health in New York.
To see more on race and climate change, see The Tangled Roots of Racism and Climate Change.
1. To be in a rage, almost all the time. NPR. Accessed April 29, 2021. https://www.npr.org/2020/06/01/867153918/-to-be-in-a-rage-almost-all-the-time
2. Rysavy TF, Floyd A. People of color are on the front lines of the climate crisis. Green America. April 25, 2016. https://www.greenamerica.org/climate-justice-all/people-color-are-front-lines-climate-crisis
3. Bullard RD, Wright B. The Wrong Complexion for Protection: How the Government Response to Disaster Endangers African American Communities. NYU Press; 2012:31.
4. Esri. Aftermath of Katrina: A time of environmental racism. Reconnaissance Coverage Geographic Information System. https://www.arcgis.com/apps/Cascade/index.html?appid=2106693b39454f0eb0abc5c2ddf9ce40
5. Rivlin G. White New Orleans has recovered from Hurricane Katrina. Black New Orleans has not. Talk Poverty. August 29, 2016. https://talkpoverty.org/2016/08/29/white-new-orleans-recovered-hurricane-katrina-black-new-orleans-not/
6. Thomas M. Chicago’s deadly 1995 heat wave: An oral history. Chicago. June 29, 2015. https://www.chicagomag.com/Chicago-Magazine/July-2015/1995-Chicago-heat-wave/
7. Klinenberg E. Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago. Chicago University Press; 2002.
8. Kunkel KE, Changnon SA, Reinke BC, Arritt RW. The July 1995 heat wave in the Midwest: A climatic perspective and critical weather factors. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. 1996;77(7):1507–1518. https://journals.ametsoc.org/view/journals/bams/77/7/1520-0477_1996_077_1507_tjhwit_2_0_co_2.xml
9. Cosier S. What a gutted EPA could mean for Chicago’s “Toxic Doughnut.” Natural Resources Defense Council. April 17, 2017. https://www.nrdc.org/stories/what-gutted-epa-could-mean-chicagos-toxic-doughnut
10. McAvoy S. Lost in the shuffle: The future of traditional public housing under the CHA’s plan for transformation. South Side Weekly. January 8, 2014. https://southsideweekly.com/lost-in-the-shuffle/
11. Trice DT. Far South side environmental activist Hazel Johnson and her daughter ‘decide to stay here and fight’. Tribune Digital-Chicago Tribune. March 10, 2010.
12. Amer R. A bus tour stops by polluted Altgeld Gardens. Chicago Reader. September 4, 2015. https://www.chicagoreader.com/Bleader/archives/2015/09/04/a-bus-tour-stops-by-polluted-altgeld-gardens
13. Weiss-Randall D. Utilizing Innovative Technologies to Address the Public Health Impact of Climate Change: Emerging Research and Opportunities. IGI Global; 2018.
14. Centers for Disease Control. Cancer Burden Data Fact Sheets, Louisiana. Cancer Prevention and Control. 2002.
15. Coyle M. Company will not build plant: Lawyers hail victory. The National Law Journal. 1992:3
16. Wendlend T. Louisiana’s chemical corridor is expanding. So are efforts to stop it. NPR. March 20, 2020. https://www.npr.org/2020/03/20/814882296/louisianas-chemical-corridor-is-expanding-so-are-efforts-to-stop-it
17. Bergman M. ‘They chose us because we were rural and poor’: when environmental racism and climate change collide. The Guardian. March 8, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/mar/08/climate-changed-racism-environment-south
18. King ML. Letter from a Birmingham jail. University of Pennsylvania African Studies Center. Accessed April 23, 2021. https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html