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The Disparate Racial Impact of Pollution

One of the subjects I think should get a lot more attention is environmental justice. Poor and minority populations are far more likely to be located near highly polluting facilities like energy plants and the result, a new study found, is that people of color breathe much worse air, on average, than white people do.

A study released by the University of Minnesota this week indicated that people of color are exposed to air that is 38 percent more polluted than the air breathed by white people.

In an interview with The Minnesota Post, the study’s lead researcher, Julian Marshall, an associate professor of civil engineering at the University of Minnesota, said that “the main [factors in how polluted the air breathed in was] are race and income, and they both matter. In our findings, however, race matters more than income.”

When Marshall compared the exposure gap between high-income Hispanics and low-income whites, for example, the nitrogen dioxide (NO2) concentrations were still higher among high-income Hispanics.

“We were quite surprised to find such a large disparity between whites and nonwhites related to air pollution,” Marshall told The Minnesota Post. “Especially the fact that this difference is throughout the U.S., even in cities and states in the Midwest.”

I don’t know why they would have been surprised. All they had to do was visit Detroit and the Marathon refinery, or the refineries near Gary, Indiana. The wealthy and the middle class can afford to live far from coal plants, refineries and factories, but poor people cannot. This result is almost inevitable given those realities.

Comments

  1. says

    Now do you see why White People don’t want Those People around? Minorities actually attract pollution! They do to air what they do to property values!

  2. says

    “A study released by the University of Minnesota this week indicated that people of color are exposed to air that is 38 percent more polluted than the air breathed by white people.”

    Just another good reason to keep THEM on the back of the bus.

    The city I live in has a SUNY campus with about 8K students and several thousand faculty, staff, admin and support personnel. We also have a pair of nuclear energy companies (3 reactors at 2 plants) a coal to oil conversion power plant with the tallest structures (twin smokestacks) in the county, an aluminum re-melt and rolling mill and a gas fired co-gen.

    The two BIGGEST concerns of locals, as regards those entities is HOW much they hand over in PILOT money each year and DRUNK COLLEGE STUDENTS. Active leaks of tritium into the local water table and Lake Ontario? Crickets.

    The energy companies figured out, long ago, that so long as you pay decent wages and don’t have too many spectacular mishaps the locals will grovel for the dollaz. So add comp’ny towns to your list, Ed.

  3. jba55 says

    I think Michael Heath @3 makes an excellent point. While racism is certainly a big part of the issue, I think it’s poverty that’s the specific cause here. More minorities are poor, hence they live in more polluted area. Because let’s face it, when it comes down to it most of the people who make the decisions that cause this type of situation don’t care what color you are, if you aren’t rich you aren’t a person. Not that I’m bitter or anything.

  4. colnago80 says

    Re Michael Heath @ #6

    I am totally unfamiliar with the Carter case but it would appear that there is credible evidence that, in fact, Carter was guilty of the crimes with which he was charged. In addition, like O. J. Simpson and Jim Brown, he was also abusive toward women.

    http://goo.gl/yrpO9d

  5. Ellie says

    I have not read the whole study, but I tend to think economics would have more to do with it than race. I say that, having grown up in a steel mill town, with many other polluting industrial plants as well. The neighborhoods where these plants were, were almost all white. There was very little integration in any neighborhood. So, I was white and grew up with air so bad that when I went to CA in 1963 and heard people complaining about smog, I was confused. The air seemed OK to me.

    We had to rewash laundry many times because stuff in the air would get on the clean laundry hanging on the line. Of course, that’s only my personal experience, and I certainly don’t mean to speak for all places at all times.

    I do notice reading the charts, that in my hometown, the difference between whites and non-whites is pretty close. I’m betting the difference is because many polluted neighborhoods of my youth, that used to be white, are now mixed or non-white.

  6. matty1 says

    The quoted section makes clear that they are claiming an effect of race independent of the effect of poverty.

    When Marshall compared the exposure gap between high-income Hispanics and low-income whites, for example, the nitrogen dioxide (NO2) concentrations were still higher among high-income Hispanics.

    I don’t have any idea why this might be, are there factors that force even wealthy Hispanics into more polluted areas and conversely that keep poor whites away from those areas?

    For now I’ll avoid discussing the problems of using Hispanic and white as mutually exclusive categories but I am aware of them.

  7. says

    Siting of waste disposal facilities and polluting industries are greatly dependent on the political power of the communities in which they are proposed to be cited.

    Economic class is one determinant of political power.

    Race is another.

    Since race AND economic class are determinants, that means that poor white communities still have more political power than poor black communities.

    So please. Stop playing the “ANYTHING BUT” game. The “ANYTHING BUT” game is where members of the privileged class attempt to escape the discomfort of cognitive dissonance about benefiting from unjust systems by proposing alternate explanations to the bigotry from which they benefit. No matter how improbable the explanation. In this case, simple poverty is not an improbable explanation for the disparities, but claiming without evidence that economics contribute MORE than race to such disparities serve only to distract our attention from the urgent problem of racial disparities, thereby delaying the solving of such problems and decreasing the likelihood that we will be able to accurately diagnose the problems, which hurts actual people living in the real world. That’s why it’s imperative that every single person who made that argument in this thread check their privilege (yes, I said it; deal with it) and hold themselves back from making that argument the next time the opportunity comes around, which it most certainly will.

  8. gwangung says

    I don’t have any idea why this might be, are there factors that force even wealthy Hispanics into more polluted areas and conversely that keep poor whites away from those areas?

    Racial redlining still exists, even if unsaid and informal, both in public policy and in financial sectors. That could be a factor.

  9. parasiteboy says

    As matty1@10 points out race is independent of income in the study.

    I would suspect that this is the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) effect. If your the minority in a town then you’ll lose the NIMBY battle when it comes up for a vote. With that said I would not be surprised if racism (mostly “soft” racism over “hard” racism) is involve in most cases.

  10. HappiestSadist, Repellent Little Martyr says

    Colnago80: You’re linking to St0rmfr0nt to prove your point?

  11. D. C. Sessions says

    I would suspect that this is the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) effect. If your the minority in a town then you’ll lose the NIMBY battle when it comes up for a vote.

    If, through a complete failure of NIMBY, the coal slurry pipeline runs through your neighborhood to feed the new power plant upwind, you know what happens? The property values drop as those who can afford to live upwind of the plant and uphill of the pipeline move out to do so. At which point the people who can’t afford to live in better neighborhoods (such as the now-gentrified one upwind) move in.

    Similar effects play out with regard to school districts, which is part of how the crappy neighborhoods also end up being majority-minority. With crap schools.

  12. naturalcynic says

    An additional factor that relates to location is that richer, whiter populations that have people that work in the polluting facilities drive through the poorer neighborhoods to get to work. This adds pollution from suburban workers’ cars.

  13. caseloweraz says

    Michael Heath: Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter just died, he was one of the most famous victims of racism for his time. I thought Bob Dylan nailed it in his ode to Carter…

    I remember the case well, because of that song — among Dylan’s most powerful, IMO, along with “Percy’s Song” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.”

    Carter lived in Toronto. I always assumed he left the U.S. because of the legal mistreatment he received here.

  14. Pen says

    I don’t know why they would have been surprised. All they had to do was visit Detroit and the Marathon refinery, or the refineries near Gary, Indiana. The wealthy and the middle class can afford to live far from coal plants, refineries and factories, but poor people cannot.

    This can’t be the whole explanation because the study specifically says that low income whites breathe better air than high-income Hispanics. OK, I’m not American, so this is partly a stereotype about Americans, but we tend to assume that low-income whites in the US are more likely to be rural than low-income people of other races. Possibly there is an urban/rural factor involved?

  15. smrnda says

    Race probably matters since we already know that, in terms of treatment by banks for home loans, minorities get shittier treatment than white people with similar incomes and credit ratings, meaning less choice in where to live, along with the fact that racial segregation is still a huge thing.

    Political clout also matters; near Chicago, there was a plan to build a trash incinerator in the Black south suburban town of Robbins – this was when I was quite young, but there were quite a few white op-ed writers arguing that anybody protesting the idea had to be racist, since in the end, Black towns needed polluting industries since it was either that or nothing.

  16. wildbill says

    I wish someone could require that the owners/CEOs and upper management and their families live on the premises, or right next door to these plants. If these owners think there is no health risk than let them put their money where their mouth is.

  17. Shplane, Spess Alium says

    Direct racial segregation and financial inequality likely feed on each other. High-income non-whites are probably more likely to live in polluted areas because the housing industry pushes them toward “*insert X race here* neighborhoods”, which will statistically be comprised of poorer individuals with less ability to not live in hellholes. Not to mention that many of them may prefer such neighborhoods, since they then have to deal with fewer white people treating them like shit. Thus, because institutionalized racism makes minority individuals more likely to be poor, and institutionalized racism creates pressures that cause minority individuals to live near each other, and poor people are less able to avoid pollution (both due to lack of political ability to keep it “out of their back yard” and inability to leave when something is moved in), minorities are more likely to live in heavily polluted areas, regardless of their actual financial status.

    Or, at least, that’s what I would expect.

  18. says

    “If these owners think there is no health risk than let them put their money where their mouth is.”

    Or, put their lungs where they make their loot.

  19. oranje says

    @20: And that they actually built the thing, and it was shut down in short order, should serve as an example. Robbins is a majority-minority suburb generally in the midst of suburbs that are majority white. I never understood what was going on with Robbins until I was old enough to understand how political institutions operate.

    I remember those arguments, too: well, it’s better than nothing. We’ll be helping “those people”.

  20. The Gregarious Misanthrope says

    I’ve had conversations about this issue with coworkers. It ususally revolves around them griping how certain industries stay out of certain states because of environmental/air quality regulations. I typically end the conversation by nodding along and then adding “So poor people deserve to breathe polluted air?” No one seems to want to own up to that opinion.

  21. Crimson Clupeidae says

    Sadly, a lot of privileged people wouldn’t bother to think of the poor (and largely black) population as people living in more polluted areas.

    …they think of them as filters.

  22. scienceavenger says

    @12 “Racial redlining still exists, even if unsaid and informal, both in public policy and in financial sectors.”

    Indeed, in the insurance industry we just use code words like “gangs” and “crime” as arguments to not write in certain areas. After all, crime is color blind right?

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