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  • Writer's picture The Vindicator

“I Can’t Breathe”

Written by Jillian VanDyke // Illustrated by Sophia Smith

Environmental racism harms not only the earth, but Black lives living on it.

Fact: systemic racism directly correlates to negative environmental impacts. Injustice prevails when greenery is strategically placed within different neighborhoods. Predominantly Black neighborhoods often suffer from a lack of green space, leading to air quality problems. Living in a healthy environment is a human right and should not fluctuate based on location, income, or race. These issues are storied and persistent but civil rights activists have brought these issues to the forefront.

Race matters when discussing environmentalism — injustices involving the placement of green spaces and pollution-causing factories. Healthy water, clean air and fertile land should be accessible across the board. However, this does not occur because low-income neighborhoods do not have enough access to green space and are more likely to contain factories that create a toxic living environment. Different laws in different areas affect this issue as well. All communities deserve protection against harmful gases. Black residents suffer from harsher air quality in their neighborhoods than predominantly white neighborhoods. This is not ideal, especially during a pandemic.

This year has boasted a wide range of headlines, many pertaining to the spread of COVID-19 and the resurgence of the civil rights movement following the killing of George Floyd. There have been many ties between the two topics, especially in the discussion of Black individuals being more at risk from dying from the disease. This is because Black people experience more underlying health conditions from the long-term exposure to air pollution in their neighborhoods. In an April 2019 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Sampson and fellow Harvard sociologist Robert Manduca showed that poor African-American neighborhoods have higher levels of lead and air pollution than poor white neighborhoods. This shows that the issue at hand is more racial than financial.

The phrase “I can’t breathe” in relation to the suffering of George Floyd covers a wide range of racial injustices. Environmental injustice has been a frequent discussion point during the Black Lives Matter movement and COVID-19 pandemic. “Increasingly, experts and protesters have identified racial injustice as the common denominator in police violence, as well as environmental and health inequalities linked to poor COVID-19 outcomes.” (via The Guardian) This movement and pandemic has brought oppression to light in many different areas. Environmental racism not only affects comfort in living, but directly affects health and quality of life. The quote “I can’t breathe,” by Floyd was in reference to the fact that he literally couldn't breathe due to police brutality, but it covers areas of health injustice as well, referring to statistics showing that Black people are more likely to suffer from harsher symptoms of asthma or respiratory issues.

Research proves that race and environmentalism are directly linked. Dr. Robert Bullard, a professor at Texas Southern University, is considered the Father of Environmental Justice. He discusses topics such as location having an impact on health. He says, “There is no level playing field. Any time our society says that a powerful chemical company has the same rights as a low income family that's living next door, the playing field is not level — is not fair.” This communicates that people treat factories and their benefits as more important than the negative impact they have on the financially deprived communities near them.

September 25 was the Global Day of Climate Action. People worldwide participated in demonstrations to bring attention to the issue. On this day in Indianapolis, people gathered at the statehouse to speak about environmental racism’s impact and what needs to be done about it. Climate groups hosted teach-ins in Hinsdale, Houston, Sacramento, Boston, Denver, and Seattle.

"The phrase 'I can’t breathe' in relation to the suffering of George Floyd covers a wide range of racial injustices."

With more research surfacing about environmental racism, people are becoming more aware of the issue. Kayley Chery, a member of Extinction Rebellion Youth NYC, spoke on why she partook in helping the issue: “I am taking action by spreading awareness about the harmful effects of environmental racism in underprivileged communities and about the racism that exist within the youth climate and social-justice organizing spaces as well. This year, youth climate activists of color are reclaiming their stories often told by their white counterparts by touching on their personal experiences with the effects of environmental racism. We are able to create a seat at the table of conversation of climate justice for youth activists of color to voice their own concerns and are not used as means of tokenization.”

Bringing awareness to the issue of environmental racism is important for the Black community, as are issues with climate change. Discussing these issues, whether attending a demonstration or simply sharing information on social media, helps significantly. Voting is a crucial element of enacting change for this country and can ensure that the Black community receives equal treatment.


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