To be a person of color in America often means to be unseen and unheard. It means taking on the burdens of disproportionate impacts from pollution, wealth disparities, lack of healthcare and much more. In many cases these burdens begin at your birth and never fully end until you take your last breath.
For too long our most vulnerable communities have been suffering in silence, putting on a brave face and accepting the trauma and stressors of systemic racism and discriminatory policies. The Covid-19 pandemic has laid this reality bare.
The writer and social critic Ralph Ellison said it best: “I am an invisible man. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids – and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” Will the rest of America finally acknowledge the toll that structural inequality takes on communities of color, lower-wealth and indigenous peoples?
For decades, organizations on the frontlines of environmental justice have pleaded with politicians and policymakers to pay attention to the public health impacts of pollution on disadvantaged communities. Activists knew all too well that toxins from industrial runoff and other sources were shortening the lives of many brown and black Americans, but policymakers rarely listened.
According to some estimates, more than 100,000 people die prematurely from air pollution every year in America. About 25 million people – including 7 million children – have asthma. We also know that a disproportionate share of those deaths are composed of African Americans and Latinx people.
One of the reasons that black and brown communities are getting infected and dying at higher rates from Covid-19 is the air they breathe. A recent Harvard TH Chan school of public health study confirmed that “people with Covid-19 who live in US regions with high levels of air pollution are more likely to die from the disease than people who live in less polluted areas”.
Even as Covid-19 deaths in communities of color continue to dramatically rise, however, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has suspended enforcement of anti-pollution regulations. This staggeringly regressive decision means that toxic pollutants which contribute to cancer, heart, kidney and lung diseases will be pumped into already overburdened and medically underserved communities. These and other chronic medical conditions make vulnerable people more susceptible to Covid-19.
The formula is quite clear: less enforcement + weaker environmental protections = more sickness and deaths in vulnerable communities.
To build on the mounting set of challenges that many of these communities face, they now have to deal with a lack of Covid-19 testing and sampling in underserved areas. These communities are also dealing with food insecurity, crumbling water infrastructures and existing biases in the medical system that compound exposure and risk.
The term “the wrong complexion for protection” was coined by Latinx environmental justice leaders more than 30 years ago and popularized by Drs Robert Bullard and Beverly Wright in their book by the same name, which highlighted how people of color were disproportionately affected by toxic pollution.
American policymakers should have learned that lesson decades ago, and worked to remedy it. Now, as Covid-19 ravages the United States, we are forced to live with the failure.
It’s time for a paradigm shift. Communities of color can no longer be treated as dumping grounds for pollution. They also need stronger and more accessible medical services.
We have a historic opportunity to rectify the systemic racism, disinvestment and lack of humanity that created a situation where black and brown people are dying at higher rates from Covid-19.
If we don’t take advantage of this moment to do better, we risk proving earlier activists right. Some Americans, it seems, are still “the wrong complexion for protection”.
Mustafa Santiago Ali is a member of the Environmental Protection Network (EPN) and vice-president of environmental justice, climate, and community revitalization at the National Wildlife Federation. He served as assistant associate administrator in the EPA Office of Environmental Justice from 1984 to 2017