How Air Pollution in America Reflects Racist Politics from the 1930s


Urban neighborhoods redrawn by federal authorities in the 1930s tended to have higher levels of harmful air pollution eighty years later. new work He found it by adding a body of evidence that reveals how racist policies in the past have contributed to inequalities in the United States today.

In the wake of the Great Depression, when the federal government rated neighborhoods in hundreds of cities for real estate investment, black and immigrant districts were typically drawn in red on maps to indicate risky places to borrow. Racial discrimination in housing was outlawed in 1968. But the red-striped maps rooted discriminatory practices, the effects of which reverberated nearly a century later.

To date, historically red-lined neighborhoods are more likely to have high populations. Black, Latino and Asian residents more than areas that were considered positive at the time.

California’s East Bay is a clear example.

The redrawn neighborhoods in Berkeley and Oakland sit on lower elevations that are closer to industry and bisected by major highways. According to the new pollution study, people in these areas experience nitrogen dioxide levels that are twice as high as the areas federal pollsters identified as “best” or most desirable for investment in the 1930s.

Margaret Gordon has decades of experience dealing with these inequalities in West Oakland, a historically red-lined neighborhood. There are many children suffering asthma related to traffic and industrial pollution. Residents have long struggled to fend off development projects that are making the weather worse.

“These people don’t have the capacity to vote, or the money to hire elected officials or lawyers to fight this,” said Ms Gordon, co-director of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, an advocacy group.

Haley M. Lane, lead author of the new study, said she was surprised to find that the differences in air pollution exposure between the red-lined and better-rated regions were even larger than before. well-documented inequalities exposure among people of color and white Americans.

“At the same time, there are many other influences that create these disparities, and this red line depiction is just one,” said Ms. Lane, a graduate student in civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Berkeley.

Since scientists went digital, researchers have uncovered all kinds of patterns. a large collection of red-lined maps in 2016.

With less green space and more asphalt surfaces to absorb and dissipate heat, historically red-striped neighborhoods 5 degrees warmer in summer, on average compared to other regions. 2019 study One in eight California cities found that residents of red-lined neighborhoods were twice as likely to visit emergency rooms for asthma.

The latest study, published Wednesday in the journal Environmental Science and Technology Letters, looked at neighborhoods in 202 cities and their exposure to two pollutants that are harmful to human health: nitrogen dioxide, a gas associated with vehicle exhaust, industrial plants and other sources; and dangerous microscopic particles known as PM 2.5. The work was partially funded by the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

Joshua S. Apte, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Berkeley who worked on the research, said he assumed that differences between neighborhoods would be more pronounced in certain areas, such as the South. Instead, the patterns he and his colleagues found were remarkably consistent across the country.

Dr. “This history of racist planning is so deeply entrenched in American cities, basically anywhere,” Apte said. “We went looking for this regional story and it’s not there.”

Surveyors hired by the government in the 1930s assigned each neighborhood a four-letter grade from most desirable to least desirable. And the new study found that decades later, the least desirable “D” neighborhoods are often more exposed to polluted air, with many of their residents living near highways, railroads, and sources of industrial pollution.

This is partly because some areas rated “C” or “D” in the 1930s are already home to heavy industry and other sources of pollution. Over time, the lack of investment in these neighborhoods has made them attractive for new polluting projects that require cheap land, such as interstate highways.

One limitation of the study is that it only looked at demographic and pollution information for 2010. When the researchers began their analysis, they said information from the 2020 census was still being collected. They rearranged their analysis using 2015 pollution data and found consistent trends.

Air pollution has decreased overall in the United States since 2010 other research recommends race and income differences exposure continued.

The racial structure of some cities is also has changed in the last ten years Rachel Morello-Frosch, an environmental health scientist at Berkeley who contributed to the study, said more research is needed to determine what is due to gentrification and other factors and how this affects pollution inequalities.

Given how much some cities have grown since the 1930s, the neighborhoods on red-lined maps only cover a fraction of the population there today. Even so, the disparities in Americans’ exposure to air pollution in these cities are often not difficult to spot.

Concrete plants are often built in minority neighborhoods of the city because developers believe people are less likely to object, said Leticia Gutierrez, director of government relations and community outreach at Air Alliance Houston, an environmental group.

Language barriers prevent some residents from attending public hearings. Ms Gutierrez said it was only recently that government officials began to publish more information in Spanish and Vietnamese.

When Miss Gutierrez wants to take her kids to the park, she travels across town from her heavily Hispanic home on Houston’s East End.

“Anytime you want to picnic or be outside on a particularly nice day, it feels like the air isn’t smelling good,” she said. “And you go to the West Coast and you say, ‘Okay, I can breathe here.



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