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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 2/19/19

Black History Month: Why African Americans Are Leading Fight for Environmental Justice

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Two million Americans live within three miles of the top twelve "dirtiest" coal power plants (76 percent of these residents are people of color). Each year between 7,500 to 52,000 Americans die prematurely from power plant emissions. This is comparable to the 40,000 Americans killed in vehicle accidents each year.

Polluting industries such as toxic waste facilities, high-risk chemical plants, oil refineries, and coal fired power plants have turned too many African American and poor communities into environmental "sacrifice zones." The nation has 150 refineries located in 32 states. People of color make up over half of the residents who are at greatest cancer risk from oil refinery pollution. Refineries dumping pollution on fence-line black and Latino communities is a fact of life along Houston's Ship Channel, Port Arthur and Corpus Christi's "refinery row," Louisiana's "Cancer Alley," Southwest Detroit, South Philadelphia, North Richmond, CA and Los Angeles' South Bay region.

African Americans need clean air, clean water, healthy food, high quality jobs, clean energy, green and affordable transportation, and access to safe natural environments. The Green New Deal Resolution is a positive first step that presents climate solutions to move the United States in the right direction toward a just clean energy economy for all solutions that eliminate greenhouse gases, create millions of high-wage American jobs, build green and accessible public transportation, reduce poverty and inequality, promote equal protection of workers, frontline communities and vulnerable populations, and provide safeguards against climate and related environmental health threats.

Climate change will increase the number of "bad air days" and pose significant health threats, including cardiovascular, respiratory allergies, and asthma, with an unequal burden falling on African Americans. African Americans are almost three times more likely than whites to die from asthma related causes. African American children have a death rate ten times that of non-Hispanic white children; African American children are 4 times more likely to be hospitalized for asthma, as compared to non-Hispanic white children; and African Americans account for 13 percent of the U.S. population, but 26 percent of asthma deaths.

A disproportionate share of African Americans (55 percent) live in the South, a region where a disproportionate share of its governors and attorneys general are climate deniers who have routinely resisted stronger environmental protection and climate action. African Americans in southern states have not only had to fight environmental racism but have had to contend with state officials fighting the American Care Act (ACA) or Obamacare, Medicaid expansion, Clean Power Plan, climate adaptation plans and renewable energy standards. Ironically, many of these same climate-vulnerable southern states have the highest poverty and highest electricity bills. They also have the highest uninsured rate, unhealthiest residents, and the shortest life expectancy.

Climate change will widen the racial wealth gap. Structural racism is a major factor creating the wealth gap between black and white families. Black wealth is roughly one tenth of white wealth. In 2016, the median wealth for black and Hispanic families was $17,600 and $20,700, respectively, compared with white families' median wealth of $171,000.

A recent study of Hurricane Harvey found storm-induced "flooding was significantly greater in Houston neighborhoods with a higher proportion of non-Hispanic Black and socioeconomically deprived residents." However, disaster recovery dollars do not always follow need. The way FEMA aid gets distributed increases racial inequality. A Rice University and University of Pittsburgh study found counties that experienced $10 billion disasters, white communities gained an average of $126,000 in wealth following recovery efforts while black and other communities of color lost between $10,000 and $29,000.

Diverse black organizations including the NAACP, the nation's oldest civil rights organization, black colleges and universities, grassroots groups, labor, faith organizations, entertainers, youth and students, and a host of other black organizations are calling for environmental, climate, economic, energy and justice. Many of these organizations, coalitions, networks and consortia are committed to making America a much stronger, healthier, and fairer nation. We are stronger together when people who have the most at stake are part of the decision-making on how we move forward to heal our communities, our states, our nation and our planet.

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Robert D. Bullard is Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy in the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University in Houston. His most recent book is entitled "The Wrong Complexion (more...)

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