Environmental Racism: How Climate Change Disproportionately Impacts Communities of Color
A legacy of racism leaves people of color most susceptible to climate change and environmental hazards
By: Aila Ganić
A mid-August sun beats down on a middle-aged roofer in South Omaha.
He’s hammering away, shingle after shingle, the searing heat sapping his body. Some days, he leaves home at 6 a.m. and returns at 8 p.m., a routine he’s maintained for years.
Fifty-five miles away, Sofia Gavia sits in a college dorm room, worried about the man on the roof.
Did he get home safely?
What if he gets heat stroke?
What will I do if something happens to him?
Her father owns a roofing and siding company. She knows he’s diabetic and lugs heavy loads of roofing tiles up and down ladders. The terrible heat heightens her anxiety. Every minute he’s outside is an extra minute he could be felled by the stubborn heat wave.
“You don’t have that luxury of having your parents working in office jobs,” says the University of Nebraska-Lincoln environmental studies major.
Sofia’s fears are not unfounded.
Talk to medical experts and social scientists and they’ll tell you it’s no coincidence her Latino, immigrant father is at higher risk for heat-related illness than the general population. This, they say, is but one example of environmental racism – a combination of often-deadly conditions that disproportionately injure and kill America’s people of color.
For example, between 2005 and 2015, heat-related emergency room visits in California rose 63% for Hispanic people – but only 27% for whites, a 2019 Weill Cornell-Medicine Qatar study revealed. Meanwhile, Black Americans remain three times more likely to die from asthma than white Americans, according to the American Lung Association.
“Anywhere you can go and find a neighborhood like North Omaha, or where there’s not enough housing or jobs [or] there’s people of color who live as [a] majority in one community, there’s environmental racism happening,” asserted Graham Jordison, a senior organizer with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign.
And, Jordison said, people of color do not end up living where they do by accident.
While Native American land was taken and their fundamental way of life destroyed, Black and Latino communities are confronted with a different reality. They often find themselves crammed into substandard housing surrounded by toxic coal-fired power plants and highways jammed with CO2-spewing cars, trucks and buses.
Add climate change to deteriorating social conditions triggered by systemic racism and you’ve got a highly toxic brew, many climate experts believe.
Dr. Ayana Johnson, a Black climate scientist, is one of them. In a June 3, 2020, Washington Post article, Johnson offered this observation:
“Black Americans who are already committed to working on climate solutions still have to live in America, brutalized by institutions of the state, constantly pummeled with images, words and actions showing…how many of our fellow citizens do not, in fact, believe that Black lives matter.”
Taken as a whole, this means rising temperatures are not the only issue impacting the Gavia family in South Omaha. The historic consequences of environmental racism, many experts believe, have spawned a long list of medical and social issues. Among them:
- Higher asthma rates
- More heat-related illnesses and deaths
- Decreased life expectancy
- Lack of access to clean air and water
- Increased risk and mortality from Covid-19
“With climate change, it does affect people of color in the sense that we’re already at a deficit in our society, in the sense that we are treated as second-class citizens,” said Keyonna King, a University of Nebraska Medical Center professor. “And if we’re already in a hole, you put climate change on top of that, which brings a whole other realm of issues that we’re inept to really try to address within our own communities.”
Environmental racism isn’t a new phenomenon. In fact, it has been around since the late 1400s, according to Barry Thomas, Omaha Public Schools Director of Equity and Diversity. This, Thomas says, is when European colonizers first landed in North America.
“The story for this country about environmental racism begins the moment that Indigenous people had their land taken from them,” Thomas said.
And over time, experts say, environmental racism has expanded to include increased exposure to climate change impacts.
Jesse Bell, University of Nebraska Medical Center professor of health and environment, says scientists know populations of color are more vulnerable to climate change impacts. The reason: lack of access to health care, pre-existing health conditions connected to increased exposure to environmental hazards, housing location and discrimination.
“We’re still based off of a long history of discrimination, a long history of racism that was built in[to] a lot of these institutions, in these cities and these places. And because of that, you have all these different hurdles that certain groups have to overcome,” Bell said.
While these external factors contribute to people of color’s increased exposure to climate change impacts, Dominique Liu-Sang insists internal factors shouldn’t be overlooked. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln agricultural economics major said money and greed also are significant factors in environmental racism.
“When you decide that you want to make changes to our environment, you’re not thinking about the people that live there,” said Liu-Sang, a local Black Leaders Movement organizer. “You don’t see the people as people – you see them as money.”
And environmental racism can appear in a multitude of ways. For one, natural disasters often strike communities of color the hardest.
UNMC Professor King notes natural disasters are more frequent due to climate change. And the populations most adversely affected, according to King, are people of color.
“[Communities of color] are inadequately resourced that they can’t recover from [climate change impacts] as quickly, or our governments, for whatever reason, don’t have a sense of urgency to address the issues within those communities,” King said.
Beyond natural disasters, environmental racism also is reflected in the overall cleanliness of green spaces, according to Jazari Kual, CEO of the Nebraska-based media company Kualdom Creations.
“The farther south you go, you see how well kept the environment is,” Kual said, using Lincoln, Nebraska, as an example. “The further north you can go and more towards central Lincoln, you kind of see how unkept it is.”
Nebraska’s Black communities have suffered for generations from environmental racism, resulting in a multitude of health and social issues, according to experts and health records.
Consequently, it’s no coincidence North Omaha residents have a shorter life expectancy, said Professor King.
This area of the city has an average life expectancy of 70.8 years, according to the Douglas County Health Department. But just a few miles away, in predominately white West Omaha, the average life expectancy is 81.3 years.
This decreased life expectancy, King said, is a product of the social determinants of health and built environment.
Social determinants of health include employment, education, housing and access to health care. Built environment, on the other hand, includes lack of access to sidewalks and safe green spaces. Pollution and litter also are factors of built environment that render residents unable to get fresh air.
“It just happens to be the life expectancy is lower in the areas where Black and brown people live,” King said. “I don’t think that’s a coincidence at all.”
In fact, elevated asthma rates have become a staple of North Omaha – a trend reflected nationwide. Black individuals are 42% more likely to have asthma than white individuals, according to a 2018 American Lung Association report.
These skyrocketing rates can be partially attributed to coal plants polluting communities of color. Black Americans are 1.54 times more exposed to PM2.5, a pollutant released from coal plants, than white Americans, according to a 2017 study published in the American Journal of Public Health.
PM2.5, research shows, increases respiratory damage. It “can send the body’s immune system into overdrive,” which leads to “worsening asthma symptoms,” according to a 2019 international research study.
And coal plants are not the only air pollution culprit. Jordison, the Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign organizer, notes the highways infiltrating North Omaha are a contributing factor.
“They built a frickin’ highway right through the [North Omaha] community. They never would have done that in a white community or an affluent community,” Jordison said.
Add it all up and Omaha ranks as the ninth-most challenging city for asthmatics, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.
Additionally, Tsegaye Tadesse, a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center, has identified locations where toxic waste dumps cause respiratory problems in children. These locations tend to be close to people of color and low-income communities, he said.
“If they [people of color and low-income communities] complain, they can’t do anything about it because these high-income people or just people who are investing money, they use the legal system to just shut them up,” said Tadesse.
Contaminated air that triggers high asthma rates is detrimental to childhood development, said Nebraska state Sen. Tony Vargas. In fact, the World Health Organization cites air pollution as a factor in premature births, neurodevelopment and cognitive ability.
People of color living by these pollutants is not an accident, maintains Thomas, the Omaha Public Schools diversity director.
“The people who are positioned next to the most polluted areas in this state, and across the world, are those that are seen or have a perception of being least valuable,” Thomas said. “And in our society, that tends to be people of color.”
Meanwhile, lead poisoning also has infiltrated Omaha’s Black and Latino communities and its effects will be felt for decades, according to both health experts and citizens living in those areas.
“We know the effects of lead,” Professor King said. “They can be fatal.”
And these effects occur at a young age, Sen. Vargas said. For example, lead poisoning in old housing stock affects cognitive development in children, which in turn, he said, “contributes to the ability to be academically successful in our communities and in our schools.”
Thomas echoes this point, adding that lead poisoning has “generational impacts” on educational capability, intellectual capability and emotional development.
Lead poisoning is not the only concern for Nebraska’s Latino population. As Sofia Gavia knows only too well, heat-related illnesses also are a chronic concern.
Bell, the UNMC professor, said the lack of green space and tree cover, especially in low-income areas of cities, leads to even higher levels of heat in these densely populated areas. This constitutes significant concern, especially for those who lack resources to deal with heat, such as access to air conditioning – often a fatal factor for the poor and the elderly.
And most recently, Covid-19 has disproportionately impacted Indigenous, Black and Latino populations.
To date, American Indian and Alaska Natives have 5.3 times higher rates of Covid-19 hospitalizations than whites, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Black individuals have 4.7 times higher rates of Covid-19 hospitalizations than whites, while Hispanic and Latinos have 4.6 times higher rates of Covid-19 hospitalizations than whites.
These higher rates of infection and hospitalization among people of color make sense rationally and scientifically, Bell said. It’s a scientific fact, he noted, that pre-existing respiratory conditions make individuals far more susceptible and vulnerable to Covid-19.
“It doesn’t surprise me in any way that if you live closer to some sort of industrial area, or power plant, if you’re being exposed to more or poorer air quality, then it wouldn’t surprise me that that wouldn’t potentially be a factor leading to more severe outcomes due to Covid-19,” Bell said.
Although issues of environmental racism abound, experts also are quick to reassure that a multitude of solutions exist.
Ponca Tribal Chairman Larry Wright noted that solutions start with inclusion before the issues develop.
“[People of color] see the effects [of climate change] first, but they’re the last ones to be heard,” Wright said. “They need representation at the table at the beginning of the conversation.”
Gavia, meanwhile, said she believes the environmental movement has to meet people where they are at, allowing them the space and time to work at their own pace.
“The reason I feel you see a lot of white people in [the environmental] movement,” she said, “is because of the privilege they hold. They have the time and the resources to invest into the movement. While … people of color are often not that well off and have to focus on that third job, and have to worry about feeding [their] kids.”
Thomas, the Omaha diversity director, is focused more on solutions to environmental racism that already exist. He emphasized the role of policy change and the location of people of color as two key factors that need to be addressed.
“The beginning and end of all policy-related racism is all about location,” Thomas said. “As long as large groups of particular races are constantly and consistently found within one area, those areas will always have disproportionate impacts on race.”
Thomas also noted an equitable allocation of resources to people of color will help erode existing environmental racism. Those resources include housing, land, water, access to education, job creations and job promotions.
Professor King, meanwhile, also echoed the important role of policy and resource allocation. She said there’s a need to amend policies that harm people of color’s access to resources, putting them at higher risk for environmental hazards.
“We need to make sure that we really focus on some of those populations that are most at risk [for climate change impacts], and make sure that they have the resources that are now necessary and available to help overcome some of these issues that we’re going to be facing,” he said.
Although concerns about her father likely will increase as he gets older and Nebraska summers get hotter, Sofia Gavia has found a place to relieve her anxiety. The first-generation college senior has become an ardent climate activist – involved in Sustain UNL, Embrace and OurClimate, all environmental organizations.
She believes today’s youth will be the ones to help solve the environmental crisis – hopefully in a way that eases the burden she carries every time her father leaves for work.
“People are listening to young people now because we have something good to say,” Gavia said. “We care about communities and want to help improve and provide a better future for future generations.”
Native People No Strangers to Environmental Racism
A long history of colonization has left Indigenous populations with a multitude of environmental issues.
Larry Wright, chairman of Nebraska’s Ponca Tribe, says the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline is a prime example of environmental racism because of its threat to sacred Native land.
“For centuries, the Poncas and other tribal nations have called Nebraska home before it was Nebraska. We have buried our dead, our ancestors in those lands,” Wright said.
The proposed KXL pipeline, only partially built, extends from Northern Canada to Steele City, Nebraska, and could carry 830,000 barrels of oil a day. The 1,200-mile pipeline has been controversial from the beginning and has been delayed multiple times in district and federal courts from environmental groups and Native tribes suing to have it stopped.
Many believe the pipeline also threatens Nebraska’s water supply. Wright said the pipeline would travel beneath the Missouri and Niobrara rivers, as well as in close proximity to the Ogallala Aquifer.
“The Missouri River and Niobrara for my people, along with other tribes, is considered sacred because it gave us life, it provided life. Not only drinking water, but for the animals that we consume, the plants and crops that we grew,” the tribal chairman said.
Among the most significant concerns with any pipeline is the potential of an oil spill. Art Tanderup, a Sandhills rancher, believes Native populations will suffer the consequences of an oil spill more than any other community. Not only does this pipeline have the potential to flood Indigenous land with oil, but it also blatantly contradicts Native values, according to Tanderup.
“The tribes are very much into protecting Mother Earth, very much into protecting water,” Tanderup said. “The pipeline is trying to violate all those things.”
Thomas, the Omaha diversity director, agreed with the Sandhills rancher, explaining why the KXL Pipeline can be attributed to environmental racism.
“The land is precious to [the Ponca],” Thomas said. “But we put spirituality, we put culture to the side in respect of dollars in the Keystone XL Pipeline, and where’s the environmental justice in that?”
While Native populations would be affected the most, Ponca Chairman Wright said that an oil spill into the Ogallala Aquifer would be detrimental to all Nebraskans as it’s a main source of irrigation and drinking water.
Meanwhile, the KXL Pipeline is but one example of the flagrant disregard for Indigenous people by the U.S. government, according to activists. Wright believes the federal government has preyed on the Native’s lack of legal resources to fight environmental racism. He said such disregard begins with ignoring how environmental changes impact tribes.
“I think when Native lands are impacted, in many, many cases, there’s not really a consultation process from the beginning of a project … And tribes historically have struggled to fight that because of lack of resources necessary,” Wright said.
Tanderup agreed that the U.S. government and corporations often have disregarded Native life. Using North Dakota’s Standing Rock Reservation as an example, Tanderup described how the Dakota Access Pipeline was constructed without any regard for the Indigenous populations living on top of it.
“They literally just plowed right through Native graves. [It] would be just like somebody taking a bulldozer down through our cemeteries,” Tanderup said.
Beyond pipelines threatening sacred land and water, Wright also cited hardships resulting from the forced relocation of Native people as another example of environmental racism.
“The crops that we planted and the medicines that we harvested from the area that we lived in for centuries, all of a sudden, you uproot our people to a place 500 miles away and the environment is very different,” Wright said. “And so, you had disease, you had starvation, you had those things and sickness that didn’t exist where we were originally from.”