Racism Drives Environmental Inequality But Most California Don’t Realize

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Written By Blue & Gold NLR Team





Environmental justice means that everyone should have the right to live in a safe and healthy environment, regardless of factors like race, ethnicity, or income. Unfortunately, in California, this ideal is far from reality.

Many communities, particularly those of color and low income, face a disproportionate burden of pollution, climate hazards, and a lack of access to green spaces and healthy food. These disparities are not accidental but result from historical and ongoing racism and discrimination.

Redlining and Segregation’s Impact

A significant contributor to environmental inequality in California is the legacy of redlining and segregation. Redlining, starting in the 1930s, involved federal agencies and banks using color-coded maps to assess the risk of lending in different neighborhoods.

Areas with higher populations of Black, Latino, Asian, or Native American residents were marked as “hazardous,” denying them loans and financial services. This prevented people of color from buying homes, accumulating wealth, and accessing better opportunities.

Redlining influenced the location of industries, highways, and waste facilities, often placing them in or near redlined areas, exposing residents to higher levels of pollution. This also created a spatial divide between white and non-white communities, limiting access to quality education, healthcare, transportation, and green spaces for people of color.

Climate Change and COVID-19 Exacerbate Inequalities

The environmental disparities resulting from redlining and segregation are worsened by the impacts of climate change and COVID-19. California faces more frequent and severe wildfires, droughts, heat waves, and floods, posing serious threats to residents’ health and well-being.

However, communities of color and low-income communities are more vulnerable to these climate hazards due to their location in flood zones, urban heat islands, and fire-prone regions. They also lack the resources to cope with and recover from climate disasters, such as insurance, savings, emergency services, and social networks.

Similarly, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted and deepened health disparities among racial and ethnic groups in California. Environmental and social factors like occupation, housing, income, access to healthcare, and underlying health conditions contribute to these disparities.

The Urgency for Awareness and Action

Despite clear evidence of environmental inequality and its consequences, many Californians are unaware or indifferent to the issue.

A recent survey by the Public Policy Institute of California found that only a minority of Californians see air pollution and global warming as significant problems in their region. Additionally, there is limited recognition of the connection between racism and environmental inequality.

Nevertheless, there are signs of hope and progress, with organizations like the California Environmental Justice Alliance, the Greenlining Institute, and the Youth Climate Strike advocating for change.

These initiatives emphasize that environmental justice is not only about fairness but also about survival and solidarity. As Martin Luther King Jr. stated, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” It is crucial for all Californians to be aware of and engage in the fight for environmental justice, not just for the affected communities but for the entire state and the planet.


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