By Larry Ivory, Stephanie Hickman and George Williams
The poisonous effects of racism have been especially evident over the last year, from the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor to the higher impact of COVID-19 in our neighborhoods.
But there’s another, more insidious form of discrimination that has been impacting people of color for decades: environmental racism.
People of color experience greater harm from airborne pollution than whites, according to study after study. One reason for this gap: decades of residential segregation have led to a greater percentage of people of color living in areas of higher air pollution, such as next to crowded expressways, power plants, factories, transportation corridors and shipping hubs.
We’re still seeing this play out even today in Chicago, with the move of General Iron’s metal-shredding facility from Lincoln Park to the city’s Southeast Side. Local activists have vehemently protested the move, and some went on weeks-long hunger strikes.
Air pollution places everyone’s health at risk, but those most vulnerable to its impact include children, seniors, people living with asthma and other chronic health conditions, low-income communities and communities of color. The effects range from wheezing, coughing and asthma attacks to heart attacks, stroke— and even premature death.
The Illinois State Black Chamber of Commerce has joined with the Illinois Clean Air Now (ICAN) to rectify this inequitable situation. One way we’re decreasing air pollution — and also bringing more quality jobs to our state — is by supporting policies that increase the number of electric vehicles (EVs) on the road. This will dramatically decrease the amount of airborne pollution within Illinois, particularly in areas that are more heavily affected by transportation exhaust and fumes.
This is something we all need to work on together. Gov. J.B. Pritzker is leading the movement toward clean, non-combustible power and away from fossil fuels. Illinois Black businesses need to have a seat at the table as we plan the transition to a greater usage of cleaner, renewable energy.
Considering the disproportionate impact pollution has on people of color, any legislation that moves forward should include voices from the most affected communities. In the past, decisions about transportation have been made by metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) that are largely white — almost 90% of voting members from one group of MPOs are white, according to one study. Clearly, it’s time for that to change.
Transitioning to electric vehicles will help drive greater innovation and create green jobs in our state. A recent report by Rewiring America found that electrifying our economy, including our transportation sector, could create up to 25 million good-paying jobs across the country over the next 15 years.
As the move toward clean energy gains momentum in Illinois, we must ensure that clean transportation options, technologies, training and employment opportunities are created for communities of color. They’ve borne the brunt of our environmental wrongdoing for decades, so it’s only fair that we include — and uplift — those that have been most dramatically affected by environmental racism.