The modern environmental movement now recognizes the inextricable link between environment and race. We cannot solve the climate crisis without addressing systematic racism.
Environmental racism is the disproportionate burden of environmental hazards placed on people of color.
In the United States, the biggest predictor of if you live near a hazardous waste site is the color of your skin. Santa Clara County and San Jose are no different. Santa Clara County has 23 superfund sites—the highest number of any county in the United States—and hundreds of other sites that don’t qualify but are still threats to human health and safety.
The environmental burden of these sites falls unevenly into areas which are “comprised of the highest percentages of low socioeconomic immigrants of color.” Whiter cities such as Cupertino and Palo Alto host far fewer sites.
Research published in Scientific American shows that “on average, Black and Hispanic people are exposed to more PM2.5 (pollution), respectively, than the amount generated by their consumption, whereas white individuals are exposed to 17 percent less.”
Environmental racism kills
Living close to pollution has significant negative health consequences. A 2018 study conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency found that people of color face a 28% higher health burden than the general population due to pollution. For Black Americans the burden is 54% higher.
As a result, Black Americans are three times more likely to die from pollution than the overall population. Children are particularly vulnerable to pollution. Black children have asthma rates twice as high as white children and are 10 times more likely to die from the disease.
The pandemic cast a spotlight on intersections between pollution, health and race. Residents in areas with higher air pollution are more likely to suffer from severe complications or die from COVID-19.
San Jose’s Rep. Zoe Lofgren testified to a congressional committee that “in Santa Clara County, Latinos comprise nearly 46% of the cases and 31% of the COVID-19 deaths, despite making up just a quarter of the population. Black people account for 4.5% of the county’s deaths, though they make up 2.4% of the population.”
Of the 10 counties most vulnerable to climate disaster (including Imperial County in California) the population is, on average, 81% minority. Climate change will also worsen economic inequalities, making it even harder for marginalized communities to cope.
Two problems with an interconnected solution
The interconnected nature of environment and race means we must address two systemic problems at once. Luckily, the state Legislature is packed with bills that address environmental racism and I encourage you to reach out to your state legislator and voice your support.
Senator Josh Becker, who represents the northern part of Santa Clara County and San Mateo County, has proposed several significant environmental bills. Senate Bill 596 isn’t specifically focused on environmental racism, but puts California’s cement industry on the path to reducing its substantial climate footprint. San Jose had three cement factories.
Senator Becker is also supporting the creation of a used electric vehicle market for disadvantaged communities with SB 771.
Another significant bill, this one in the Assembly, is called the “Climate Change: Extreme Heat and Community Resilience Program.” AB 585 focuses more on disadvantaged communities in hot agricultural regions and supports “community resilience centers, including hydration stations, cooling centers, clean air centers, respite centers, community evacuation and emergency response centers, and similar facilities to mitigate the public health impacts of extreme heat and related climate change impacts on local populations.”
Two additional bills, Senate Bill 671 and Assembly Bill 1001, mandate studies on the impacts of pollution on residents living along heavily-trafficked corridors. This is just small sample of the environmental bills currently being considered by the state Legislature.
You can also contact your federal legislator to register your support for the American Jobs Plan. This piece of legislation puts justice and equality front and center. If this proposal becomes law, approximately $1 trillion would be devoted to climate change, clean energy and environmental justice.
Racism and climate change are systemic problems which require solutions beyond individual actions. Use your voice and let your elected representatives know that justice, the environment and equality should be their top priority.
San José Spotlight columnist Erin Zimmerman is a Climate Reality Leader with the Climate Reality Project’s Silicon Valley Chapter. Erin, a long-time environmental and political activist, holds a PhD in political science. Her column appears every third Wednesday of the month. Contact Erin at [email protected].