As environmental justice battles rage around the country, thousands of African American children and adults are being left out of the conversation. Access to clean drinking water, lead paint abatement programs, and affordable energy bills are vital to the health and financial well-being of communities — especially low-income families of color. Yet the disparities continue to rise — in Minnesota and beyond.
According to the U.S. Institute of Health, cockroach allergens are detected in 85 percent of inner-city homes, and 60 to 80 percent “of inner-city children with asthma are sensitized to cockroaches based on the skin prick testing.”
While Minnesota overall has good air quality, Twin Cities air pollution kills nearly 2,000 people a year. “Children in the Twin Cities metro area go to the ER for asthma at a rate nearly twice that of children in Greater Minnesota,” according to the 2019 Environment and Energy Report Card by the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board (EQB).
“In some Minneapolis zip codes, asthma hospitalization rates for children are four times higher than the rest of the state,” reads the EQB report. “Poorer air quality in the metro area could be a contributing factor, and efforts to reduce air pollution are a critical part of addressing the disparities.”
A Center for American Progress report found that water contamination disparately “plagues low-income areas and communities of color across the nation.” Studies have “documented limited access to clean water in low-income communities of color.”
The EQB report card ranks the unhealthy nitrate level in Minnesota’s groundwater as consistently “poor,” largely because “removing nitrate from tap water is expensive.
The National Institute of Health reports “use of nitrate-contaminated drinking water to prepare infant formula is a well-known risk factor for infant methemoglobinemia,” a condition known as “blue baby syndrome” that could lead to coma or death.
We see firsthand how this crisis in clean water creates a variety of healthcare problems for Black patients and their families.
In addition, 11.2 percent of African American children who live in urban areas are at risk for lead poisoning caused by lead-based paint, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Such disparities are only heightened by elite environmental organizations that are overwhelmingly managed by White leaders who appear to be turning away from the conversations. A recent study by Green 2.0, an initiative dedicated to increasing racial diversity across mainstream environmental non-governmental organizations, found that the movement is only “getting more White” as it continues to leave out people of color.
The report indicated that nearly 70 percent of the Environmental Defense Fund’s (EDF) staff was White. It also concluded that “the top 40 environmental foundations have gotten more White across full-time staff, senior staff, and board members.”
While some of these environmental groups in the area have used their presence to fight issues that impact everyone, other organizations are instead focusing on anti-pipeline and anti-energy activism in the state.
Among the best examples is an issue playing out locally, where national environmental groups — including Greenpeace, 350.org and the Natural Resources Defense Council — are waging a major battle described as “resistance against the oil pipelines.” They also are running major fundraising campaigns off of pipeline protests — even though the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration notes that pipelines are “one of the safest and least costly ways to transport energy products.”
The singular focus on one environmental issue while appearing to ignore others implies the presence of environmental racism, a long-used description of the practice of allowing toxins to exist in communities of color. Some believe that these skewed priorities may be happening, in part, because of the lack of diversity in the environmental movement.
Green 2.0 is pressing to deal with the racial inclusion issue in order to infuse greater sensitivity into the environmental justice movement.
“Communities of color bring to bear experience and perspective on both problems and pathways to power building. As an organization, we plan to take a more aggressive approach to calling out the environmental movement for their lack of diversity,” said Whitney Tome, executive director of Green 2.0, in a statement.
“For the past five years,” Tome continued, “we’ve been working to ensure that the environmental movement and its leaders reflect the current U.S. workforce demographics.”
Meanwhile, African American-led organizations are pushing environmental justice agendas, underscoring the importance of such issues in communities of color.
“Clean water is a basic human right,” National Medical Association President Niva Lubin-Johnson wrote in a commentary posted on Seattlemedium.com last fall. “At the National Medical Association (NMA), we see firsthand how this crisis in clean water creates a variety of healthcare problems for Black patients and their families.”
Instead of seeking ways to make energy more elusive and expensive for communities of color, activist groups could use their initiative to aid in the abating of these most fundamental challenges that continue to push headwinds against many Black families and other families of color.
“This is just the beginning,” said Tome. “Environmental groups are now on notice.”
Hazel Trice Edney is editor-in-chief of the Trice Edney News Wire and president and CEO of Trice Edney Communications.