It seems almost absurd to initiate a conversation about unequal access to green infrastructure in a country so wealthy – and yet here we are. How do we resolve the health disparities that result from environmental injustice in this country? We are living in a climate emergency, one that hits communities of color harder than others, but the casual observer wouldn’t be aware of it from mainstream media reporting.
While people of color are most vulnerable to the effects of global climate change, they are least represented in mainstream media environment stories. Environmental reporters and correspondents writing the stories have an overwhelmingly white perspective. The twin drinking water crises of Flint, Michigan (2015) and Newark, NJ (2018) were two of the most underreported environmental stories of the last decade as well as the most important. And it is no surprise that race played a large factor in the underreporting. In Newark, for example, some of the lead pipes transporting drinking water are from the 1880s. It is hard to imagine that level of sheer municipal neglect would have occurred if Newark were not a majority-minority city. It is 50.13% African American and 28.58% white.
Further, consider the excised image of Vanessa Nakate by the Associated Press. Nakate is a Ugandan climate activist. Last year, she was cut from a photo of prominent environmentalists — including Greta Thurnberg, Loukina Tille, Luisa Neubauer and Isabelle Axelsson — by the prominent US news agency. As if that wasn’t an egregious enough an editorial error, other news agencies, including Reuters, misidentified Nakate as Zambian activist Natasha Mwansa. “We don’t deserve this,” Nakate told The Guardian. “Africa is the least emitter of carbons, but we are the most affected by the climate crisis. You erasing our voices won’t change anything. You erasing our stories won’t change anything.”
As the World Health Organization reminds us, deaths from ambient air pollution are increasing. India is perhaps the most tragic case study. A quarter of all of global cases occur in the poorest households in India, where smoke from burning wood, dung and other solid fuels create ambient air pollution inside the domicile. Roughly 70% of the Indian population still depend on solid fuels for cooking, despite the government’s promotion of the use of liquefied petroleum gas. Who will write that story?
But how about some good news. Here in America, as the bipartisan Infrastructure Deal edges towards approval, it should be lauded for what it is — the largest investment in environmental justice in American history. The Biden administration’s attempt to resolve environmental injustice through policy should not be overlooked. “The Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal will make the most significant investment in addressing legacy pollution in American history by funding a cleanup effort that will create good-paying union jobs and advance economic and environmental justice in communities hit hard by pollution,” says the official White House Twitter feed.
Access to clean drinking water here in America is not guaranteed. The poor are relegated to the largesse of the tap. One has only to look at the water supply in places like Flint, Mich., and Newark, N.J., and their histories of community disinvestment, of residential segregation, and, above all, discrimination, to see how environmental injustice is entangled in race. A new paper out in Environmental Research Letters found race and income disparities in state enforcement of the Clean Water Act, another factor not often mentioned. People of color and low-income residents bear a greater burden of environmental disparities largely because of the lack of enforcement. Mainstream media reporting has been quite lax recently in exposing this particular disparity.
Where journalism has failed, white papers have taken up the slack. In September 2019, the NRDC and The Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform created the white paper, Watered Down Justice, that found ominous parallels in the relationship between race and drinking water violations. These organizations came together to analyze nationwide violations of the law from 2016 to 2019 and came up with s startling conclusion. The report found that drinking water systems that constantly violated the law for years were 40 percent more likely to occur in places with higher percentages of residents who were people of color.
The Biden Administration deserves credit for directing federal dollars to environmental justice communities. Even more credit needs to be given the new Progressives – the Squad in Congress, for example – that have pressed the Green New Deal and a serious environmental justice component to infrastructure policy. President Biden’s All-of-Government approach to America’s failures of inclusion on climate and environmental justice go far beyond anything ever openly promoted by a President of the United States. His equity goals involve not just the EPA, but also the Justice and Transportation Departments via the Executive Branch. One can fault Biden on many things, but his laser-like policy focus on reversing environmental injustice is astonishing.
Things are looking up. Biden’s administration essentially revises and reinvigorates the 1994 Executive Order 12898 (EO 12898) on Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations. That study found that race, ethnicity, and language had the strongest relationship to slow and inadequate enforcement of the Safe Drinking Water Act. Again — the problem of enforcement. But this time the infrastructure plan robustly addresses that precise problem.
The legacy of redlining, aside from creating separate and unequal housing and schooling, exacerbated environmental injustice. Transportation Secretary Buttigeig recently tweeted, “Especially for communities living near the highway, zero emission vehicles are an environmental justice issue.” It is testament to the current administration’s discipline and focus that the Transportation Secretary would find that zero emission vehicles have an environmental justice component to them. Communities of color and low income Americans are more likely to live near highways because of that decades-old segregationist policy. If only the mainstream media confronted these very specific, hugely compelling instances of demonstrable inequality rather than battle in the ethers against the shadowy forces of the anti-CRT movement.
Ron Mwangaguhunga is a Brooklyn based writer on media, culture and politics. His work has appeared within Huffington Post, IFC and Tribeca Film Festival, Kenneth Cole AWEARNESS, NY Magazine, Paper Magazine, CBS News.com and National Review online to name a few. He is currently the editor of the Corsair