Racism suffuses nearly every system and institution in the United States, and the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted and magnified that racial inequality, as it has so many other injustices that existed before the pandemic. As a patchwork of demographic data on COVID-19 is released, it is becoming clear that Black communities across the country have been the hardest hit by the pandemic, both contracting and dying from the disease at rates far out of proportion.
The reasons for these disparities are myriad and interconnected. Black Americans are overrepresented in frontline “essential” workforces, and therefore face increased risk of exposure; longstanding disparities in wealth and income mean that Black Americans are more likely to need to continue working rather than distance at home; those same disparities, in combination with a lower rate of health insurance coverage, mean Black Americans are less likely to seek care for a sickness that could be COVID-19 due to fear of the cost; and even those who do seek coverage are more likely to face racism from the health care system, resulting in lack of treatment or misdiagnosis. All of these factors exist in addition to preexisting, widespread racial disparities in health outcomes.
Recent findings about the effects of COVID-19 on the human body, and how it spreads, are highlighting another reason that Black Americans are disproportionately at risk: environmental racism. The interlocking harms of environmental racism and residential segregation, the health effects of those systems, and the particular way that COVID-19 spreads and affects individuals are likely combining to contribute to racial disparities in COVID-19 cases and deaths.
Environmental Racism, Segregation, and Racial Injustice
Environmental racism refers to the many ways that communities of color—in the United States, Black communities in particular—face greater harms from environmental factors. The term, which was first articulated in studies of waste disposal, toxic dumping, and industrial uses, is now understood to encompass everything from the siting of industrial uses; to proximity to power plants and factories; to higher exposure to emissions from mobile sources of pollution, like cars, trucks, and ships; to the disproportionate harm that disasters like Hurricane Katrina do to Black communities.
Environmental racism is inseparable from racial segregation. Residential segregation—which is itself a result of individual and systemic racism, including public policy choices at every level of government and exclusionary choices by financial actors—means that people of color are often concentrated in neighborhoods that have frequently been disempowered, both politically and financially.
For these reasons and more, neighborhoods with large non-white populations have historically seen lower property values, meaning that land in those areas is cheaper for industrial actors to acquire—leading to greater pollution. At the same time, policy choices have acted alongside financial factors to drive these dangerous uses toward communities of color and away from wealthier, whiter neighborhoods, thanks to imbalances in political power. Similarly, the harms of mobile sources of emissions such as cars and trucks have been concentrated in communities of color with less political power to resist them, through the siting of freeways and shipping centers, for example. (In particular, the results of the last half-century’s confluence of white flight, concentration of Black communities in inner cities, and the construction of freeways explicitly designed to serve suburban communities and break up inner city “slums,” even where these trends have mutated or shifted direction recently, continues to cause environmental harm.) In cases where pollution has a geology-specific link, such as mining, oil and gas extraction, or rivers used for dumping, historic patterns of segregation and wealth disparities have allowed white Americans to buy or inherit homes further away, while the forces of segregation and discrimination have prevented Black Americans from doing the same.
This cycle is perpetuated as existing pollution and industrial land use keeps property values low, preventing people of color from building wealth (and power) through property ownership. These environmental factors are used as justification, alongside well-documented reasons like school quality and “quality of life,” for white-dominated political systems and individuals to avoid integrating traditionally non-white neighborhoods. Political and financial systems like redlining and zoning amplify and perpetuate this cycle.
Communities of color therefore end up concentrated in areas that face greater environmental harms and are more vulnerable to natural disasters, while the forces of residential segregation create systemic barriers that make it more difficult for individuals to move to less environmentally harmful areas.
Even if these harms are not intentional, conscious decisions keep these injustices in place at each step along the way. Segregation is not the result of natural instincts to separate—it is the result of deliberate choices, conditioned but not inevitable, that include everything racial covenants to redlining, municipal secession, and exclusionary zoning; and of political leaders who uphold those systems rather than confronting them. Though the placement of polluting facilities is more traditionally thought of as the market at work, this too is the result of policy choices, which allow or ban certain uses of land in certain places. Many of the most high-profile environmental fights in recent years have been over the granting of permits for fossil fuel infrastructure—a choice made by policymakers. By the same token then, fuel emission standards and wastewater treatment requirements are also policy decisions that officials could choose to strengthen.
Just as policymakers have allowed segregation and environmental racism to persist, they could take steps to turn back the tide. Each decision to issue a mine permit, build a freeway overpass, leave a bus stop exposed to fumes, or deny an affordable housing development is a cog in the machine of racial injustice that could be dismantled rather than reinforced.
The Health Effects of Environmental Racism
These interlocking systems have had hugely detrimental effects on the health of people of color, even before the COVID-19 pandemic broke out. The disparate effects of air pollution alone—hardly the only harm of racism and segregation—have been shown to have adverse health effects. Racial segregation has been shown to be “significantly and positively associated” with exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) emitted during combustion from sources like car engines and power plants. PM 2.5 is a known carcinogen, one which the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) links to “premature death in people with heart or lung disease, nonfatal heart attacks, irregular heartbeat, aggravated asthma, decreased lung function, [and] increased respiratory symptoms, such as irritation of the airways, coughing or difficulty breathing.” Racial disparities in PM2.5 exposure hold not only at a national level, but also within most states and counties.
And PM 2.5 is far from the only disparately experienced air pollutant. Communities of color also experience significantly higher rates of exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs), which can exist in both toxic waste and air pollution and have been linked to higher rates of diabetes for Black Americans. Furthermore, a study of exposure to concentrations of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), an air pollutant and greenhouse gas, found that people of color had 37 percent higher exposure levels in 2010, concluding that “if people of color had breathed the lower NO 2 levels experienced by whites in 2010, it would have prevented an estimated 5,000 premature deaths from heart disease among the nonwhite group.” One study focused on Northern California found a significant correlation between historically redlined neighborhoods and asthma-related emergency room visits.
Segregation is an important driver of racial disparities in the social determinants of health far beyond air pollution. As Olivia Chan wrote for The Century Foundation,
Scholars have connected social vulnerability to disaster to the discriminatory housing market; filtering and redlining practices in the real estate and mortgage industries led lower-income households to inhabit homes and neighborhoods that were physically deteriorated, with poor property values and poor resiliency to storms… Present-day racial and socioeconomic health disparities are influenced by a variety of environmental determinants of health, as well: concentrated poverty; income inequality and segregation; exposure to environmental toxins; exposure to violence; inadequate access to healthy foods; and fewer and lower quality institutional resources, such as child care, schools, and recreational facilities.
How COVID-19 and Environmental Racism Intersect
Though the specific ways that COVID-19 attacks the human body are still being discovered, early consensus is that respiratory and heart ailments are significant risk factors with the virus—conditions that are often also the health effects of environmental racism, and which are likely a factor in the racial disparities in COVID-19 cases and deaths that we are already seeing. The CDC specifically names asthma, lung disease, and diabetes as conditions that put people at higher risk to the virus.
An early study from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, for example, found that people with COVID-19 who live in counties with higher levels of PM2.5 exposure are more likely to die from the virus. A separate study conducted by German researcher Yaron Ogen found a similar link: Ogen says “long-term exposure to [PM2.5] may be one of the most important contributors to fatality caused by the Covid-19 virus.”
Other studies have linked the regions in Italy and China that were hardest hit by the pandemic with higher levels of air pollution, and presented early hypotheses that air pollution conditions themselves facilitate the broader spread of the disease—one study begins by stating that “an epidemic model based only on respiratory droplets and close contact could not fully explain the regional differences in the spread of” COVID-19. Though early and unconfirmed, these studies suggest that environmental racism could be one cause of wider spread of the virus in communities of color, and not just higher death rate of those infected due to underlying health factors.
The shelter-in-place orders issued in response to the pandemic present both temporary reprieve and new challenges for environmental justice advocates. Emissions from personal vehicles and some industrial uses are dropping as many fewer people are driving and some factories temporarily shut down—one study from Europe estimates that 11,000 deaths and 6,000 new cases of asthma were avoided in the continent due to the reduction in NO2 and PM2.5 pollution—but the gains made now are unlikely to make up for years of exposure to pollutants. In fact, the pandemic may end with us seeing higher levels of pollution than before: air pollution in China, which both shut down and “reopened” before the timeline in the United States, are already above levels at this time last year. Amid the crisis domestically, the Environmental Protection Agency has reduced enforcement of a wide array of environmental regulations during the pandemic, essentially shifting to an honor system of self-enforcement for polluters, and state regulatory agencies responsible for inspection and enforcement have similarly scaled back, both because of their own decreased capacity and because the facilities they oversee have requested accommodations. If these rollbacks are maintained even as the economy starts to return to full capacity, it will further exacerbate the health impacts of environmental racism.
What Has Policy Done, and What Should It Do?
The United States remains tragically delinquent in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As in other policy areas—paid leave, workplace safety, health care, and financial support for jobseekers, to name just a few—there are longstanding policy proposals that would have helped the health and well-being of Americans before the pandemic, and will help us weather the crisis if implemented today. The EPA’s mission of reducing environmental harms, including air pollution and waste management, has meaningfully helped Americans before this crisis, but more comprehensive protection and better enforcement would have left us better prepared for a respiratory pandemic. (The Trump administration has worked to roll back or reduce enforcement of many of the policies implemented to address these harms and disparities—recently, among many other examples, by declining to tighten control of PM2.5 emissions even after the link to COVID-19 had been established.)
Across the interconnected policy realms of environmental justice, health, and infrastructure, there are a wide variety of proposals that would both help mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 crisis and provide enduring long-term benefits for society.
Existing Environmental Justice Policy Ideas
As discussed above, environmental racism and the current pandemic heavily compound each other’s harms; one consequence is that many of the environmental justice proposals that were developed before COVID-19, or without responding to the pandemic as a primary goal, would still substantially alleviate the pandemic’s toll. For example, the Environmental Justice for All Act, similar programs at the regional and local levels, and demands from the community groups at the heart of the environmental justice movement, if enacted, would reduce overall emissions and help to close racial disparities. The benefits of reducing air pollution have been shown to be larger and take effect faster than expected, and these policies would boost public health overall in addition to alleviating several key risk factors for COVID-19.
Policies and proposals to integrate neighborhoods have similarly existed long before the COVID-19 pandemic, and could mitigate some of the racial disparities in environmental harms if implemented. In particular, fully funding the Housing Choice Voucher Program (particularly if paired with a ban on source-of-income discrimination) at the federal level and increasing funding for other rental assistance programs at all levels of government would create meaningful residential mobility immediately, in addition to providing a significant financial backstop for the millions of American families facing financial uncertainty. Increased funding for repairs and retrofitting of public and affordable housing would improve underlying health conditions for residents. Over a longer period of time, proposals to allow more housing to be built in areas with better access to public transportation would cut down on emissions from personal vehicles, as would making transit more reliable and accessible for existing homes.
The temporary reduction in traffic from personal vehicles also presents an opportunity for local policymakers to try to shift some of those car commuters to less polluting modes of transport by improving bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, creating more and better bus lanes, and rolling back subsidies for parking. The federal government could encourage these policies by changing how federal transportation funds are structured, sharing street design best practices with localities, and ensuring public transportation agencies are adequately funded.
Other policies should be crafted specifically in response to this health crisis. First and foremost, federal officials must collect and report comprehensive demographic data on COVID-19 cases and deaths. Without that data, and without broadly available testing to ensure cases are accurately being tracked, policymakers and researchers will not have a full understanding of how and why Black Americans are disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
In addition, as policymakers allocate funding to address the health and financial needs of the American people, these resources should be put to use addressing both the immediate and long-term harms of environmental racism. Health care funding should be directed to areas with higher levels of pollution, even if they have not yet been hit hard by the pandemic, as the links between pollution and the disease show that those are the areas likely to be hard hit in the future. Furthermore, expansions to health care coverage must be implemented. In the immediate term, free testing and treatment of COVID-19 is essential, as well as incentivizing Medicaid expansion in states that have yet to do so under the Affordable Care Act. In the longer term, a universal health care system that supports quality, affordable health care for all is the best solution to prepare the country for pandemic threats in the future.
Green Jobs and Infrastructure
Additionally, future stages of the economic stimulus should include investments in environmental retrofitting and new green infrastructure to reduce emissions and pollutants in the long term, even after this crisis. A letter sent to congressional leadership in late March, whose authorship was led by Representatives A. Donald McEachin (D-VA) and Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), calls for policies including energy assistance and weatherization programs, development and deployment of zero emission transportation modes, and existing local programs for workforce training and pollution reduction or cleanup. Many of these investments are targeted at “environmental justice communities”—the neighborhoods and communities hit hardest by the harms of pollution and industry—and would also serve as jobs programs for communities that have often suffered from higher-than-average unemployment (for many of the same structural reasons). The HEROES Act, recently introduced in the House of Representatives, includes $50 million in funding for environmental justice grants targeted to these communities, though this falls far short of environmental justice advocates’ targets and more investment is necessary to make a national impact.
This pandemic and ensuing crisis is traveling well-worn paths of inequality in the United States. With the right response, we can not only get through this crisis, but address environmental harms that have disproportionately fallen on Black Americans for decades.