Environmental And Health Justice Intersect for Healthy Black Futures

Environmental racism is the problem. Environmental justice can be the solution.

02/17/2017 10:38 am ET
“Happy Retired Water Warrior” by Nia Keturah

Creating healthy Black futures requires attention and action to protect the environment in the spaces we call home. The environment greatly influences health status and outcomes, especially for communities of color where many are already overburdened by experiences of injustice that have health, social, and economic consequences. For a healthy future, we need environmental practices and health policies that strengthen our ability to be and stay healthy.   

Unfortunately, the current political climate doesn’t bode well for the environment or our health. In the first two weeks of this new U.S. presidential administration alone, Trump has advocated for the Dakota Access Pipeline to move forward, lead the ongoing Republican denial of climate change, met with pro–land transfer groups who advocate selling federal land currently used for public purposes, and attempted to silence and halt the normal activities of the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies tasked with protecting and promoting human health. The administration’s very first executive order, which seeks the prompt repealof the Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare), would effectively eliminate financial access to healthcare for millions of Americans and increase racial disparities in health insurance coverage which are currently declining. This is a lose-lose scenario for communities of color and Black folks who are likely to be hit the hardest.

This whirlwind of activity is ripping through the human rights of global citizens like a tornado and leaving in its wake a landscape in which environmental and human harm are common and government sanctioned.

Environmental racism is the problem. Environmental justice can be the solution.

During and after the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, a predominantly Black city where the water supply was changed as a cost-saving measure, we saw how environmental sabotage can have negative health, social, and economic consequences for those affected. In late 2014, it was discovered that the water was unsafe to drink due to bacteria and high lead levels. As of January 2017, lead levels were reported to be within the federal limit, but Flint residents rightly remain skeptical. Flint wasn’t the first time economic gains have been sought at the expense of Black health and lives. But, it should be the last.

Dr. Robert D. Bullard, father of environmental justice and Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy at Texas Southern University, wrote in an email to the author: “If a community happens to be Black or of color, poor or physically live on the ‘wrong side of the tracks,’ it is likely to receive less or no protection. In the real world, some people have the ‘wrong complexion for protection.’ Black communities, black health, and black lives have never mattered. That is why the civil rights and environmental justice movements were born.”

Environmental racism – discrimination where communities of color are forced to live in close proximity to and more exposed to environmental hazards – is the problem. Environmental justice – the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people in environmental action and policy – can be the solution.

Our health and lives are at stake.

The deaths of twelve people are suspected to be connected to the contaminated water in Flint. Human life is the highest cost of environmental sabotage, but there are other grave health consequences. Lead poisoning is dangerous for people of all ages and can cause pain, mood changes, seizures, hearing loss and difficulties with memory and cognition.

Maternal and child health is an area where environmental issues and health collide with tragic effects. Lead poisoning, and other environmental toxins, can cause reproductive challenges such as low sperm count and increased risk of miscarriage, stillbirth, or pre-term birth. Black families are already disproportionately more likely to experience miscarriage, stillbirth, pre-term birth, low birth weight, and maternal and infant mortality than their white counterparts. For example, Black mothers are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white mothers. These disparities are thought to be due in part to the chronic stress of simply living while Black in America.

Environmental, reproductive, and economic justice are all critical for healthy Black futures.

Researchers at Brown University describe the combination of chronic stress caused by racism and exposure to environmental toxins as a “double jeopardy,” where chronic stress may make people more susceptible to adverse health effects even with lower exposure to environmental toxins. A 2010 report by The Bronx Health Link compiles information on how various environmental toxins – from air pollution and lead to pesticides and flame retardants – are connected to maternal and child health outcomes, and calls out the disproportionate exposure to toxins that Black and Latino families living in the Bronx experience. For these reasons, environmental justice is highly relevant specifically to reproductive justice as well.

When considered in conjunction with the possible repeal of the Affordable Care Act, environmental justice becomes even more important because of the potential economic ramifications. How will people get the care they need to mitigate the harm caused by environmental sabotage? While the Affordable Care Act has expanded health insurance coverage to millions of Americans, Black people are still more likely to lack health insurance coverage than white people. Rolling back the Affordable Care Act would only make things worse. For many people, accessing healthcare without health insurance is simply unaffordable.

Moreover, illness from environmental toxins has economic consequences, which include medical bills and expenses from ongoing treatment, lost productivity and wages from time spent at home sick themselves or caring for sick family members, and possible unemployment. Rolling back access to healthcare is never a good idea, and it certainly isn’t now. Instead, the government should be seeking to improve financial access to healthcare. Here’s to wishful thinking.

Still, the fight for health and environmental justice must continue. These dark and dire times require it. Efforts like Black Lives Matter are helping to move the needle on environmental justice even in the face of opposition. In a solidarity statement, Black Lives Matter connected the crisis in Flint to state violence and named the environmental racism taking place. They also proposed specific action for elected officials to take to redress various environmental injustices taking place around the country.

Black Lives Matter is also resisting in solidarity with Native American advocates protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline, recognizing we have to protect what is sacred to communities of color whether it be our land or our bodies that are directly affected.

Environmental, reproductive, and economic justice are all critical for healthy Black futures.

Now is the time to ramp up our collective action to protect our futures and those of our children, grandchildren and descendants to come. As Dr. Bullard aptly states, “Efforts to dismantle environmental, health and civil rights laws must be resisted at all cost. We must fight with laser focus to protect the most vulnerable in our society – our children – since they can’t vote, demonstrate, march or file lawsuits. We must prepare our young people for this fight, because it’s their future that’s at stake.”

We have a future, and despite these dark times, we know it is bright.

This post is part of the Black Futures Month blog series brought to you by The Huffington Post and the Black Lives Matter Network. Each day in February, look for a new post exploring cultural and political issues affecting the Black community and examining the impact it will have going forward. For more Black History Month content, check out Black Voices’ ‘We, Too, Are America’ coverage.

CONVERSATIONS