On June 19, 1865, more than two years after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, enslaved Black people in Texas finally learned that they were free.
Today, Juneteenth is a time to celebrate that freedom. It also is a time to reflect on what we can do to fight actively against the systemic inequities that Black communities face: police brutality, voter suppression, housing discrimination and more.
Octavius Hayes, a member of Clean Power Lake County’s steering committee, explains what’s at stake:
The accumulation of incidents of racism, police brutality and murder of so many Black and brown people over the last few years alone has clearly left an indelible mark on young people, especially young people of color. But these types of violent acts of racism and bigotry are nothing new, predating the founding of our great nation. Therefore, as a nation, as Illinoisans, and as community members of Lake County, it isn’t simply enough to expect better. We must unite to demand better, and do the work of dismantling systemic racism, to ensure the safety and dignity of all people. Otherwise, this nation is doomed to continue to repeat the same mistakes that only further divide us at a time when we should be coming together to find solutions for imminent threats to humanity—such as climate change—that transcend race, economics, and borders.
For environmentalism to be successful and complete, it must include social justice. Environmental degradation and climate change do not affect the population equally: The brunt of the burden falls on marginalized communities. With the Black Lives Matter movement sweeping the nation, sparked by the murder of George Floyd, it is necessary for environmentalists to discuss the physical as well as the social environment for Black people in the United States.
The social environment for Black people in America has long been a painful one. America has a long history ofpolice brutality disproportionately affecting Black people. In 1927 and 1928, Black residents of Chicago constituted 30 percent of the victims of police killings, even though they only made up 5 percent of the area’s population, according to an Illinois Crime Survey cited in Smithsonian Magazine. Today, about 1 in 1,000 Black men in the United States die at the hands of the police, according to the Los Angeles Times. Black women are 1.4 times more likely than white women to be killed by the police (Los Angeles Times). Black men, according to the Washington Post, are 2.5 times more likely than their white counterparts to die during an encounter with the police, adjusting for the age of the person shot, whether the person suffered from mental illness, whether the person was attacking a police officer, and for the crime rate in the neighborhood where the shooting occurred.
Yet it is not only the social environment that hurts black people in America. The physical environment that Black communities live in also continues to cause them harm at disproportionate rates. Black Americans face a 54 percent higher health burden from air pollution compared to the overall population, according to a study by the Environmental Protection Agency, which cited historical racism and economic inequality as major factors for the disparity. Facilities emitting particulate pollution are more likely to be in Black communities, causing Black Americans to experience more asthma, a greater likelihood of heart attacks, and premature death. According to an analysis in the New England Journal of Medicine,Black Americans are 3 times more likely to die from exposure to air pollutants than white Americans.
The higher burden of air pollution on Black communities is particularly dangerous during this pandemic. A preliminary nationwide study from Harvard University found exposure to high levels of air pollution correlated with higher mortality rates from COVID-19. This finding, coupled with health disparities and unequal access to care in Black communities, helps explain why Black residents only account for 29% of Chicago’s population—yet 52% of those testing positive and 72% of those who had died as of April 6, 2020, were Black (WBEZ).
Additionally, because of Black communities’ fewer resources, economic disenfranchisement, and unstable housing, they are more vulnerable to climate change as it intensifies natural disasters such as heat waves, flooding, and hurricanes, said Janaya Khan, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Toronto, in The Root. Climate change will further erode the disparity between Black and white communities.
Let us take this moment to reflect on how the environment in America is not the same for all of its citizens.
Leah Hartung is from Libertyville, Illinois, and is a rising junior at Emory University (Atlanta, Georgia) studying environmental science.