Clean Air: Race and Place Matter
By Elsa Batista, Moms Clean Air Force
As a contractor, I am a jack of all trades: I write, moderate an online community and translate, usually from English to Spanish. Most recently, a friend and I translated a 110-page document released by PolicyLink and The California Endowment called, “Why Place and Race Matter.”
Here is a link to the full report.
Our jaws were on the ground upon reading the report. “¡Que fuerte!” my friend Xochitl blurted out after we translated yet another horrifying statistic.
Basically, through case studies and data, PolicyLink and The California Endowment found that low-income communities and communities of color in California – and oftentimes, nationally as well – are more likely than any other group to suffer the poorest health outcomes – no matter how responsible they were as individuals. These statistics, especially, blew us away:
- An African American with a PhD. earning a six-figure salary, on average, lives 15 years less than the Caucasian professional with a PhD.
- An African American mother with a college education is more likely to have a baby die in infancy than the baby of a Caucasian mother with no high school diploma.
- In California, African Americans are hospitalized and die from asthma at three times the rate of Caucasians.
- Even African Americans in economically distressed neighborhoods who ate well and exercised – in spite of the odds – still suffered worse health outcomes than their more affluent and Caucasian counterparts.
Why? According to the report: “Toxic community conditions can trump an individual’s determined effort to rise above them.” Studies have shown, for example, that toxic waste dumps tend to be located in neighborhoods with large populations of minorities and/or low-income residents. Grocery stores, a necessity, often refuse to locate to neighborhoods with large minority populations because of their perceived lack of buying power or a high crime rate.
Nationally, African Americans and Latinos were two to nine times as likely as Caucasians to receive subprime or other high-risk home loans.
The report made clear that race matters when it comes to health outcomes, but also where we live. I was appalled at how neighborhoods with large minority populations are still the dumping grounds for dirty air and water, as well as toxic waste dumps.
Many African Americans, for example, live in areas where there are a disproportionate number of highways, bus depots and airports. From the report:
“The predominantly black community of West Oakland (California), for example, sits against a busy freeway, a major port, and an airport. A 2005 study found the air inside some homes was five times more toxic than in other parts of the city. Years of research have shown that air pollution can trigger the wheezing, coughing, and gasping for breath that signal an attack in people with asthma, but a study of 10 California cities raises the even more troubling possibility that pollution can lead to the onset of the disease. The study found that the closer children live to a freeway, the more likely they are to develop asthma.”
Latinos in rural Central Valley, California, are not spared from health problems–and even death–due to air and water pollution. In a chapter in the report titled, “Birth Defects and Hazardous Waste: Fighting for Environmental Justice in Kettleman City,” there were depressing stories about Latina mothers who lost their babies to severe birth defects. According to the report,
“The alarming rate of birth defects in this poor farm-worker community—which lies just over three miles from the largest hazardous waste landfill west of the Mississippi River—catalyzed the mothers, local organizers, and environmental justice advocates to demand an investigation into the impact of Waste Management’s toxic site when the Kings County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved its expansion.
In addition to the landfill, Kettleman City’s water is contaminated with arsenic, its air is polluted with pesticides and toxic emissions from the neighboring highway, and there are few sidewalks and no grocery store. Residents know that the structural inequities they face are directly related to the fact that Kettleman City is over 90 percent Latino, with a median income of just about $22,000. ‘I’m telling you that if the dump is allowed to expand, we’ll suffer more damage and illness. Why? Because we are poor and Hispanic,’ (Maura) Alatorre told the Los Angeles Times.”
A detached observer may tell these low-income workers, who are in charge of growing and harvesting our food, to “move somewhere else.” But as the report pointed out, there are few places – from small towns to large cities – that are not touched by these issues, which are environmental, economic and health-related. Air pollution is not contained, and we all pay for healthcare costs related to it, whether for ourselves or our neighbors, not to mention lost days of work and school due to illnesses and hospitalizations. Oh, and by the way, we spend more on healthcare than any other industrialized country on earth – also in the report.
One upshot from the report: I was heartened by the amount of activism taking place throughout California and in the country. Mothers like Alatorre, who lost a child more than three years ago due to severe birth defects, and groups like El Pueblo Para el Aire y Agua Limpio (Alatorre’s group “People for Clean Air and Water”), and Mothers Fighting Pollution in Long Beach are not sitting idly while corporations pollute. Whatever their ethnicity, race or economic circumstances may be, these moms are very aware of what is going on, and they are acting.
Very much like the mothers here at Moms Clean Air Force. In that sense, I have faith that we will ultimately triumph.