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Factors to Consider in Stopping Environmental Racism

Racism purposefully and systematically creates inequities by granting advantages to one racial/ethnic group at the expense of others. By looking into the structural racism present in specific environments, environmental epidemiologists can quantify the impact environmental racism has and begin to dismantle these harmful factors. Distributing power and privilege unevenly enables racist ideals, structures, and institutions to influence the environments in which people live, play, and work. Environmental racism remains a vital piece of the overarching systems of oppression in America. Laced throughout the history of our country, discrimination and environmental racism have disproportionately burdened communities of color, specifically Black Americans, American Indians/Alaska Natives (AIs/ANs), Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and Hispanic (sometimes called Latinx) populations and research demonstrates its long and destructive influence. Oftentimes, communities are in overly polluted, dilapidated, and unsafe environments leading to increased exposure to pollutants, increased health issues, and unsafe living conditions. Additionally, necessary resources in these areas are frequently limited and/or at a substandard level leading to communities of color facing the cumulative health impact of multiple toxic environmental hazards.

To fully understand environmental racism, you must understand the role and inequity that exists within health disparities in communities of color. Many minority communities face higher rates of infant mortality and death from diseases like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer, homicide, and HIV compared to their white counterparts. In general, Black Americans and minority groups have lower life expectancy and are largely underrepresented in studies concerning the chronic diseases that affect them most.

The inequities are not limited to medical studies and health interventions. Environmental racism takes many forms; it can be in the location of hazardous work sites, the quality of the groundwater, or in the state of the school buildings where children are forced to learn in conditions that directly and negatively impact their health. It exists in the availability of services, quality nutrition, and safe community spaces. It is also inherent in the healthcare treatment available, from the doctors’ understanding of the impact racism has on health to the simple quality of providers and care. Many of these issues are common in low-income communities, however, race is more often the reliable factor in indicating the proximity and severity of the impact from the pollution or states of decline or disregard in a neighborhood.

To address and eliminate environmental racism, awareness of these facts and issues must be raised through media and public activism along with continued academic studies. Investigators must consider the racial disparities present when looking at issues present in health representation and research, equity in education and employment, and in allocating funding toward communities in need. Racism must become a recognized factor when considering differences in health or exposure risks and must be acknowledged as a key indicator when looking at the social, economic, and environmental disparities that influence health. Additionally, policies must reflect the current racial inequities and stop silencing minorities and those most affected by this enormous issue. The impact of environmental racism is staggering and long lasting for those experiencing these toxic conditions regardless of those in power continuing to choose to ignore and excuse it. Systemic racism calls for a comprehensive change to the systems in place. Failure to critically evaluate and consider racism as the primary factor in environmental health research willfully ignores the people and communities who are disproportionately affected by it.

References:

Beech, Peter. (2020). What is environmental racism and how can we fight it? World Economic Review, 7/31/2020. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/07/what-is-environmental-racism-pollution-covid-systemic/

Kaufman, J. D., & Hajat, A. (2021). Confronting Environmental Racism. Environmental health perspectives129(5), 51001. https://doi.org/10.1289/EHP9511

Perry, M.J., Arrington, S., Freisthler, M.S. et al. (2021). Pervasive structural racism in environmental epidemiology. Environ Health 20, 119. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12940-021-00801-3