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Texas Southern University Hosts Environmental Justice Encuentro May 17-19, 2012

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Growing a new generation of leaders has always been a top priority of the Environmental Justice Movement. The key to any successful movement rests with how effective that movement solves "pipeline" challenges.  Bringing young people into our movement to address environmental justice and health disparities can only strengthen the movement. Every successful social movement in the United States has had a strong youth and student component--as in the case of the movement for civil rights, women rights, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights, anti-poverty, anti-war and peace and justice. More youth and students need to be educated to fill the positions that are being rapidly vacated by retiring baby boomers.  


It is no accident that the Environmental Justice Encuentro , convened on May 17-19, 2012, is held at the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University, a historically black college and university (HBCU) whose history is intertwined with the quest for racial justice. Given TSU's history and mission as a "special purpose university for urban programming," the BJML School of Public Affairs is uniquely situated to lead the way in research, policy, and community engagement work in the areas of environmental justice, public health, housing, transportation, land-use planning, regional equity, smart growth, sustainability, equitable development, food security, disasters, clean energy, climate, civil rights and human rights--all seen through a racial equity lens.  


Healthy people and healthy places are highly correlated. The poorest of the poor within the United States have the worst health and live in the most degraded environments. Race also maps closely with pollution, unequal protection, and vulnerability.  More than 100 studies now link racism to worse health. More than 200 environmental studies also have shown race and class disparities. While much progress has been made over the past three decades, many challenges remain. Unfortunately, pollution and vulnerability still map closely with race and class factors.   If a community happens to be a community of color, poor or located on the "wrong side of the tracks," it receives less protection than communities inhabited largely by affluent whites in the suburbs. One of the most important indicators of an individual's health is one's zip code or street address.


A 2007 United Church of Christ Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty study found people of color make up the majority (56%) of the residents living in neighborhoods within two miles of the nation's commercial hazardous waste facilities, nearly double the percentage in areas beyond two miles (30%). The study is based on 413 commercial hazardous waste facilities in the U.S. People of color also make up more than two-thirds (69%) of the residents in neighborhoods with clustered or two or more waste facilities.  Forty of 44 states (90%) with hazardous waste facilities have disproportionately high percentages of people of color in host neighborhoods, on average about two times greater than the percentages in non-host areas (44% vs. 23%). Nine out of ten EPA regions have racial disparities in the location of hazardous waste facilities and 105 of 149 metropolitan areas with hazardous waste sites (70%) have disproportionately high percentages of people of color, and 46 of these metro areas (31%) have majority people of color host neighborhoods. 


African Americans are 79 percent more likely than whites to live in neighborhoods where industrial pollution is suspected of posing the greatest health danger.  In 19 states, African Americans are more than twice as likely as whites to live in neighborhoods where air pollution seems to pose the greatest health danger. A similar pattern holds true for Latinos in 12 states and for Asians in seven states. Although all Americans produce waste, we all don't have the same probability of living near facilities where waste is disposed.


Focusing on PM2.5 and ozone, researchers in a 2012 study found non-Hispanic blacks are " consistently overrepresented " in communities with the poorest air quality. Even money does not insulate some groups from the pollution assaults. For example, African American households with incomes between $50,000 and $60,000 live in neighborhoods that are, on average, more polluted than the average neighborhood in which white households with incomes below $10,000 live. Clearly, these disturbing disparities can't be reduced to a poverty thing. A 2012 Patterns of Pollution study of Metro Atlanta found people of color, people living on low incomes, and families who speak a language other than English are more likely to live near and be affected by pollution than whites and those with higher incomes. It also found that neighborhood blocks with a minority population 50 percent or higher have more than double the number of pollution points than blocks where people of color make up less than 10 percent of the population.


Living with more pollution takes a heavy toll on people of color as seen in higher than average asthma rates among African Americans and Latinos. A May 2012 CDC report, Asthma's Impact on the Nation , found that asthma costs Americans nearly $56 billion per year in medical expenses, $3.8 billion in missed work and school, and $2.1 billion from premature deaths. It also found African American children are two times more likely to have asthma than white children; African Americans are 2-3 times more likely to die from asthma than any other racial or ethnic group. Among racial groups, persons of multiple race had the highest asthma prevalence (14.1%), while Asian persons had the lowest rates (5.2%). Persons of black (11.2%) and American Indian or Alaska Native (9.4%) races had higher asthma prevalence compared with white persons (7.7%). Among Hispanic groups, asthma prevalence was higher among persons of Puerto Rican (16.1%) than Mexican (5.4%) descent.


The health and pollution impacts of climate change are expected to fall disproportionately on the poor. The 2011 Union of Concerned Scientists Rising Temperatures, Worsening Ozone Pollution report found that unchecked global warming could increase ground-level ozone, threatening public health and the economy could cost approximately $5.4 billion in 2020. It also found climate change-induced ozone increases could result in 2.8 million additional serious respiratory illnesses, 5,100 additional infants and seniors hospitalized with serious breathing problems, and 944,000 additional missed school days in the United States in 2020.


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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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