Issue 3 — "I Can't Breathe."

Black Americans and the burden of environmental racism

In late May, police officer Derek Chauvin forcibly knelt on the neck of 44-year-old George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota. As Floyd was pinned between the officer’s knee and the concrete street, he pleaded that he could not breathe — a phrase he gasped more than 20 times. In 8 minutes and 46 seconds, George Floyd was dead.

In the months since Floyd was killed on May 25th, “I Can’t Breathe” — a phrase repeated at least 70 times by people who have died in law enforcement custody, more than half of whom were Black — has become a global cry to recognize, reckon with, and dismantle the systemic racism and white supremacy that allows police brutality to continue with impunity. But the reach of structural racism goes beyond policing, and for the Black community, this phrase has broader implications tied, in particular, to environmental justice.

“For us, ‘I can’t breathe,’ as painfully gasped by Eric Garner and George Floyd during their last moments on Earth as life was being choked out of them by police officers, has an especially tragic meaning,” wrote the leadership team of the National Black Environmental Justice Network in a recent statement. “It is pluralized to ‘We can’t breathe’ by children and adults in our communities suffering severe asthma attacks triggered by government-sanctioned toxic pollutants in the air they struggle to breathe.”

Across the United States, Black individuals are 79 percent more likely than white individuals to live in neighborhoods where industrial pollution poses a danger to human health. For Black mothers, poor air quality, including high exposure to particulate matter (PM2.5), is associated with a higher risk of preterm birth and stillbirth. Black children are 10 times more likely to die of complications from asthma than white children. But the racialization of breathing spaces, as one study puts it, is only one aspect of the way in which police violence overlaps with the environmental injustices burdening Black communities.

Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency room technician living in Louisville, Kentucky, was killed in her home by police officers yielding a “no-knock” warrant (the police involved are yet to be arrested, learn more here). In the Louisville neighborhood of “Rubbertown,” an area with a high concentration of chemical plants, the average life expectancy is 10 to 12 years lower than the city’s average. Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, was pursued and killed by white vigilantes while he was jogging in a predominantly white neighborhood in Glynn County, Georgia. Arbery’s murder speaks to the way in which open spaces reflect America’s legacy of racial segregation, whereby parks and even sidewalks are the domain of white people.

It is no wonder then that Black leaders — in particular, Black women like Margie Richard, who fought Shell Chemical in Louisiana, and Rue Mapp, who is changing the narrative of who gets to enjoy nature — are at the forefront of organizing against environmental racism, just as they are on the frontlines of the Black Lives Matter movement, founded by queer and female organizers. But it is not only up to the Black community. While we are starting to see historically white environmental groups such as the Sierra Club begin to examine their own racist history and role in upholding white supremacy, the privilege that comes with knowing you will not be attacked while enjoying a public space such as a park; that your children will not be exposed to high levels of lead borne from “cost-cutting” as was the case in Flint, Michigan; or that your parents and friends do not live in a neighborhood like “Cancer Alley” where the risk of cancer is 50 times the national average, hinges upon whiteness. Environmentalism is intersectional. There is no movement unless it is one that speaks for us all.


Images courtesy of the Richmond Youth Air Quality Initiative/CERCH/RYSE

A Conversation with Bailey Ward

Bailey Ward, a third-year student at the University of California, Los Angeles majoring in Geography and Environmental Studies, grew up in the diverse and vibrant city of Richmond, California located on the east side of the San Francisco Bay.

Around 80 percent of Richmond residents identify as BIPOC and more than 15 percent live in poverty. The Chevron Richmond refinery, which looms over the city it predates, processes nearly 250,000 barrels of crude oil each day, regularly spewing black smoke spirals into the air or “flaring.” The refinery has also exploded three times with the most recent event in 2012 sending more than 15,000 people to the hospital with respiratory issues. As a result, air quality in Richmond is poor and the communities closest to the refinery suffer disproportionately from related health issues.

As a high school senior with a growing interest in environmentalism, Ward joined the Richmond Youth Air Quality Initiative, a project led by the Center for Environmental Research and Children's Health at the University of California, Berkeley (read more about their projects here) that works with young people to conduct air quality research in a neighborhood burdened by industrial pollution. For Defender, Ward writes about growing up in Richmond, her interest in environmental justice, and her hopes for the future of her hometown.

Images courtesy of Bailey Ward and the Richmond Youth Air Quality Initiative/CERCH/RYSE

Growing up, I remember being unable to attend school because of accidents at the Chevron Refinery making it unsafe to go outside. As a child, these incidents didn’t strike me as anything out of the ordinary. While I was unable to attend school, I went home and didn’t think about it any further. I never understood the health impacts or that neighboring communities didn’t face similar issues. I also didn’t understand that these issues stemmed from a legacy of racism. It wasn’t until I was afforded an opportunity with the Richmond Youth Air Quality Initiative that I was able to more fully understand the scope of these issues.

Within the city of Richmond, there are extreme differences between socioeconomic status. This impacts different aspects of life including access to healthcare and even proximity to air pollutants. Richmond as a city is disproportionately affected by poor air quality and low-income, people of color carry the heaviest burden. We know that poor air quality directly contributes to other negative health outcomes that harm the long term health of Black and Brown people in the city. The reality is that the health of Richmond residents will be forever impacted by their proximity to industrial pollution. 

As a part of the Richmond Youth Air Quality Initiative, I served on our Richmond Youth Council as an air quality researcher. Guided by UC Berkeley researchers, we surveyed and analyzed the data of air monitors placed throughout the city of Richmond, in areas expected to be heavily impacted and heavily inhabited by people. We were trained in public health and environmental health education and learned about Richmond’s history regarding health inequity. As we were all learning through the experience, we shared roles and took turns to record our work, put up air quality monitors, create outreach materials, and more.

Images courtesy of the Richmond Youth Air Quality Initiative/CERCH/RYSE

This project empowered me and my peers to make changes in our community and learn about environmental health in ways that our schools never taught us. With this experience we were able to apply our knowledge for the betterment of our community, empowering us to be leaders in this space. In fact, because of my experience, I have chosen to study environmental studies in college and hope to get a Masters in Public Health in order to learn the skills necessary to improve my community and communities like mine. 

When I think about growing up in Richmond I am filled with a lot of pride but I want the health of the community to be put first. I want the organizers who have worked for years demanding environmental justice in Richmond to be heard at decision-making tables. In the future, I hope that the injustices that have gone on for years in Richmond will be brought to light. With this, I think environmental justice will come when our leaders stop putting a price on our health and livelihood. Asthma can’t be repaired with a scholarship sponsored by the same industry that caused it. Jobs or other economic revenue that stems from industrial industries can’t make up for the generations of people whose health has been impacted by those same industries.

Our lives should come first.


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Recommended Reading

COVID-19 Could Be a ‘Double Whammy’ for Those in Pollution Hotspots

In late March, DaLyah Jones — a staff writer covering arts and the environment for Texas Observer — wrote about the overlap of respiratory problems caused by industrial pollution and how that could put people at higher risk of complications from COVID-19. Since it was published, we’ve seen the way in which Black Americans are disproportionately impacted by coronavirus.

Defunding the Police Is an Environmental Justice Issue

For One Zero, Drew Costley explores how defunding the police could free up funding for environmental issues, eliminate noise, light, and air pollution created by over-policing in communities of color, and remove an environmental stressor of Black people.

Images courtesy of the Richmond Youth Air Quality Initiative/CERCH/RYSE

Pollution Is Killing Black Americans. This Community Fought Back.

For the New York Times Magazine, journalist Linda Villarosa, looks at environmental racism in Philadelphia, the way in which poor air quality impacts black communities, and the people fighting back.

Replanting roots in a Southern food desert

Journalist Ko Bragg reports on food insecurity, the racial politics of farming, and the people at the forefront of reimagining Mississippi’s food system.

Black Women Are Leading the Charge in the Fight for Clean Water in Newark

For Zora, freelance writer Naomi Extra, writes about the Black women leading Newark’s fight for clean water. The city’s water crisis is akin to that of Flint, Michigan with exceedingly high levels of lead and a lack of governmental action or transparency. Also check out photojournalist Demetrius Freeman’s photo essay about Newark’s water struggles.


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In Pictures

The images featured in this month’s Defender are screenshots from a zine produced by the Richmond Youth Air Quality Initiative to communicate the findings of their research. I love the handmade aesthetic and the way in which the participants used a casual and conversational medium to communicate something both serious and informative. To see more of the zine, check out the video below which will take you through page by page.


Thanks for reading! Please reach out if you have any feedback, reading recommendations, or would like to submit art for a future edition. Wear a mask, stay home, and take care.

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