Pearl River One public health research report after another has nailed the facts that minority and lower income populations life expectancy is diminished by environmental pollution. Harvard’s School of Public Health says that the new tighter air pollution standards proposed by the EPA could “reduce mortality rates by up to 7 percent for Black and low-income Americans over 65 who are exposed to some of the dirtiest air in the United States.” These communities are not just the ones along the Love Canal or Louisiana’s Cancer Alley. This problem is ubiquitous. Another study in March 2022 “found that urban neighborhoods that were subject to redlining, the discriminatory practice of withholding banking and other services from nonwhite communities, in the 1930s tended to have high levels of harmful air pollution eight decades later.”
People live in these precarious communities not just because this is what they can afford or where they feel safe from other forms of discrimination and prejudice, but also because this is where they have been forced to live and often relocated. The causes are numerous and certainly include redlining and forced displacement from urban renewal more recently, but the causes also include historic racism and forced removal when land was stolen through governmental use of eminent domain and exploitation and land loss of Black farmers pushed off their land through denied credit, fast dealing, and at gun point since the end of Reconstruction. Black farmers “lost 90% of their land after 1910” worth about $326 billion, for example. I’m not talking about reparations here, although I could be. I’m just to point out the simple truth that people live in precarious circumstances not by choice, but because of state and corporate action that has left them few alternatives in public policy and private commerce.
Some families are pushing back and trying to win redress for some of the historic abuses, aided by lawyers and organizations like Where Is My Land. The story of the return of beach land in California to the Bruce family after it was seized illegally by eminent domain has gotten a lot of attention. Other families and communities are also involved in public and legal fights in Georgia, Alabama, and elsewhere. As a New York Times report indicated, “Scholars say the use of eminent domain was often racially motivated and invoked disproportionately in minority and poor communities. One study showed that between 1949 and 1973, 2532 eminent domain projects in 992 cities displaced one million people – two-thirds of them African American.”
The consequences of all of these actions, then and now, are still profound. People are dying. People are poorer. Whole generations are paying the price with their lives. By any measure, there must be justice.