We who come from communities of color face many issues in our daily lives, and the stereotypical image of a white environmentalist buying reusable grocery bags or chaining herself to a tree is hardly one that resonates deeply within us. If we care about our communities, however, we must take a step back and recognize that accepting this incomplete definition of “enivronmentalism” and remaining disconnected will actually hurt us. There is, in actuality, a thriving push for environmental justice – a drastically different concept – happening in communities throughout this country and beyond, and the fight is at the root of many inequalities we are confronting.
You may have heard a lot of news this week about the United Nations climate summit happening in Copenhagen, and perhaps have wondered why you should care whether the United States becomes part of a globally-binding agreement to reduce carbon emissions and end our dependence on dirty energy. Consider this.
Just because we didn’t grow up visiting the national forest or taking nature hikes for leisure, we should still feel connected with our environment. We need to redefine the word “environment.” In our communities, it is where you work, play, pray, go to school, and sleep. Unfortunately for communities of color, our environments are not always the healthiest emotionally, physically or mentally. We need to take back our environments to ensure that our quality of life is not jeopardized.
Why is that African Americans and Latinos are one-third more likely to have asthma and cancer than their white counterparts? Is it because genetically they are pre-disposed to these health problems? Or is it because they are more often faced with environmental pollutants that jeopardize their health? According to a report released by the Environmental Justice and Climate Change Initiative and Redefining Progress, “asthma, which has a strong correlation to air pollution, affects blacks at a 36 percent higher rate of incidence than whites.” Likewise, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, asthma causes black children to experience 260 percent higher emergency room visits, 250 percent higher hospitalization and 500 percent higher death rates compared with white children.
These alarming statistics do not apply only to African Americans, but people of color in other communities as well. According to a report released by the National Resource and Defense Council,’Ninety-one percent of [Latinos] in the United States live in metropolitan areas, where polluted air may increase the risk of illnesses including asthma and cancer.’ The list of figures like this one goes on and on.
As people of color we need to recognize that we have done the least to contribute to climate change but we are often the hardest hit by its effects, from the high cancer and asthma rates in our communities to the displacement of our people. For example, African Americans are less responsible for climate change than other Americans, yet suffer disproportionately from its negative effects. According to the Commission To Engage African Americans on Climate Change, on average, African American households emit 20 percent less greenhouse gases than white households, but because African Americans spend a 25 percent greater than average share of their income on energy, they are more likely to be affected by changes in the price of energy. Likewise, we all saw Hurricane Katrina displace hundreds of thousands of Americans, with poor African Americans representing a disproportionate percentage of the displaced. Now New Orleans’ African American population has fallen to less than 60% of its pre-hurricane levels.
The environment is something we cannot