Air Pollution Shows That Segregation Never Fully Ended

 I often run into people (on the internet) who insist that systemic racism, in which the physical, social, and legal infrastructure of the United States disadvantages non-white people in general, and Black people in particular, is no longer a problem. It’s the same disingenuous line of thinking behind the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision that Congress didn’t really mean it when they renewed the Voting Rights Act, and it relies on the pretense that when explicit racial segregation in the letter of the law ended in 1964, that ended racial segregation in every way that mattered. The problem is that under Segregation, the school systems, laws and legal conventions, and the infrastructure itself were all designed to promote and maintain white supremacy.

In case it is unclear to anyone, that doesn’t just mean that white people tend to get better results from the system, it also means that Black people are actively pushed down. The police play an major role in that, from brutalizing and terrorizing communities, to forcing people into the prison system, to literally stealing peoples’ money. The school systems are still mostly segregated as well, and combine with the cops to form the infamous “school-to-prison pipeline. And as for where Black people live, the ground, air, and water in Black neighborhoods that were set up under Segregation is far more likely to be poisoning them, every day of their lives. The go-to example for this is probably the fact that race is a major factor in determining your lead exposure, but air pollution is probably next on the list.

I talk about air pollution a lot, because it’s a way in which we all pay a terrible price for the world being run the way that it is. It screws with us in all sorts of nasty ways, which is why there have been successful efforts to reduce it. Unfortunately, there’s a pattern in the success of those efforts. If you’ve been paying attention to the theme of this post, you’ll see this coming – Black communities don’t seem to be seeing the same benefits:

Fine particulate matter, also known as PM2.5, consists of particles or droplets smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, or 30 times smaller than the width of a human hair. While some PM2.5 in the environment comes from natural sources, such as wildfires, the majority of particulate matter pollution in the U.S. is the result of human activities, including emissions from vehicles, power plants, and factories.

The small size makes PM2.5 harmful for human health, said Kai Chen, assistant professor of epidemiology at Yale School of Public Health and senior author of the study.

When you inhale such small particles, they can get into your lungs and some smaller particles can even get into the blood stream and circulate around the body,” said Chen. “That can impact your heart, which leads to a lot of the cardiovascular disease we see today.”

Environmental efforts including the 1963 Clean Air Act and the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) National Ambient Air Quality Standards for PM2.5, established in 1997, have helped bring down PM2.5 levels throughout the United States. This, in turn, has yielded benefits to human health. But it has remained unclear whether these health benefits are distributed equitably across racial and ethnic groups.

We know that some minorities, especially Black and Hispanic people, are exposed to higher levels of PM2.5 than white people,” said Chen. “In our study, we wanted to go further and assess vulnerability to PM2.5 across different groups and see how that relates to mortality.”

The researchers took pollution and mortality data from over 3,000 US counties, and found that mortality linked to air pollution decreased in white, Hispanic, and Black populations, but the decrease was not evenly distributed.

However, the ratio of mortality rates between white and Hispanic people and between white and Black people hardly changed between 2001 and 2016. Mortality rates for Hispanic people were 1.37 times higher than white people in 2001, increasing to 1.45 times higher by 2016. Mortality rates for Black people were 4.59 times higher than white people in 2001 and 4.47 times higher in 2016.

Air pollution reduced and that reduced exposure for everyone, which is very good news,” said Chen. “But Black people still experience a higher burden because they are more vulnerable and at higher risk of mortality.”

The findings, he says, underscore that the public health burden of air pollution differs across racial groups and that should help inform policy design going forward. The EPA, U.S. lawmakers, and local governments should consider not just the overall population as they develop policies to improve air quality, but also high-vulnerability groups in particular.

Poor air quality imposes a substantial burden on Black Americans, with greater exposures and greater vulnerability,” said coauthor Harlan Krumholz, the Harold H. Hines, Jr. Professor of Medicine at Yale School of Medicine. “We have identified another way that the structure of our society contributes to cardiovascular health disparities. The study demonstrates that the excess mortality among Black people is not just derived from traditional risk factors, but likely also to the increased exposure to poor air quality based on where they live.”

That burden isn’t theoretical, either. It affects fetal development, brain function, cardiovascular health, respiratory health, and all of that means higher stress levels, a harder time coping with a white supremacist society, and higher medical bills. If you don’t get your money stolen by your boss, or by cops, you get it taken through poor health, simply because you were born Black. The higher mortality also imposes a financial burden, because dying is a big expense all by itself.

This is why reparations are needed. The systemic injustices “of the past” were literally built into the foundations of the United States as it exists in the present. Money was spent, and time and energy invested in creating an uneven playing field, and it will require at least as much investment to unmake those systemic injustices, let alone repair the damage that has been done to the Black community in America. The harm is ongoing, and it will not stop until we actually commit to making it stop.


  1. sonofrojblake says

    This is why reparations are needed

    What do reparations look like, though?

    A couple of years back I was very apprehensive about watching the HBO Watchmen TV show, given the polarising nature of the movie (which I like, FWIW, and think it couldn’t have been done much better, if it had to be done). It was surprisingly good. One of the bits of world-building for its alternate history was that after Nixon’s fourth(!) term, the US took a swerve to the left and voted in Robert Redford as a Democrat President. He instituted a system of reparations for racial injustice, referred to as “Redfordations” by the white people who didn’t like it. It was (I think) just large cash lump sums and/or complete tax exemptions given to (I think) all Black people, just for being descendents of those enslaved or whatever. They didn’t really get into the weeds of who counts as Black. The overall point was that reparations were attempted, but were executed too simplistically.

    I don’t think there’s any room to argue that reparations aren’t still needed, but even calling ANY policy that out loud could be electoral suicide. It’s like saying out loud that you’re going to raise taxes to improve out-of-work benefits – it’s not out of the question to DO it, it’s just not something any sensible politician would say out loud in those terms if they want to get into a position where they CAN do it. Ain’t democracy brilliant?

  2. says

    I’ll try to do a post on that soon, but if the goal of reparations is to correct the historical and ongoing racial injustice in the United States, then here are a few things that I think the need to include:

    – Defund the police and re-allocate money to community resources. Giving cash or homes to black people won’t help much if the entire system is set up to take that money away the second they get it.

    – Clean up pollution in black neighborhoods. That means the US government pays to replace every single lead pipe, to fully clean and repaint houses with lead paint, and clean up the soil, which will probably mean literally replacing it, and putting the contaminated soil somewhere else. It also means controlling industry, and the corporations whose factories and power plants are polluting the air and water. It also means investing in rail, and removing the freeways that were built through black neighborhoods.

    – Invest in black communities separate from the money taken from cops, and make sure that those communities are in control of how those investments are used.

    That’s a place to start. I also think universal healthcare would help, along with other things. White backlash is absolutely a real obstacle, as it has always been. There’s a powerful case to be made that the US welfare state is in its current disgraceful condition because the law changed to require that black people also benefit from it, and racist white people couldn’t handle that.

    That means that some form of re-education/PR campaign is probably also necessary. In a lot of ways, reparations can act as an umbrella policy – by getting to the point where we can actually do it right, we will also be getting to the point where we can do other good things, because of what that will say about where the country is at as a whole.

  3. sonofrojblake says

    some form of re-education/PR campaign is probably also necessary

    You’re very good at picking words that would make people’s heads explode! 😀

  4. says

    Yeah, I suppose. I keep thinking of a quote from the youtuber Shaun, talking about fascists. I’m paraphrasing, but it was something like – you gave it a go on your own, and you fucked it all up.

    But re-education is literally what’s needed – people have been mis-educated. They grew up learning things that were, to be blunt, lies. If we want anything to change, long-term, part of the work has to be helping people understand how and why they were lied to. It’s not the ONLY thing we should be doing, but I do think it should be part of the effort, if only to keep white supremacist violence down.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *