Dr. King Said Segregation Harms Us All. Environmental Research Shows He Was Right.@NYTimes

Speaks for itself:

A half-century ago, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in Memphis on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. To get to the site, which is now the National Civil Rights Museum, you can cross through neighborhoods that are as much as 97 percent black or as much as 93 percent white.

Dr. King preached that segregation was harmful not only to black Americans but also to the nation as a whole. He died before the modern environmental movement, but a growing body of research around pollution and health shows that his belief about segregation hurting everyone extends to the environment as well. Many American cities that are more racially divided have higher levels of pollution than less segregated cities. As a result, both whites and minorities who live in less integrated communities are exposed to higher levels of pollution than those who live in more integrated areas.

“The price that America must pay for the continued oppression of the Negro is the price of its own destruction,” Dr. King wrote in a 1962 address, “An Analysis of the Ethical Demands of Integration.” In it, he set out the political, ethical and spiritual reasons he believed that segregation was harmful for all. Some historians say his thoughts are applicable to understanding environmental issues today.

Researchers have known since at least the 1980s that black and Hispanic communities have higher levels of pollution and its associated harmful health effects than white communities, even when controlling for income. Studies show that racial discrimination leads governments and companies to place polluting facilities, like landfills, power plants and truck routes, in black and Hispanic communities. Race is not the only factor in environmental inequality — poorer people experience more pollution than wealthier people. But for blacks, race trumps income. Middle-class blacks experience higher levels of pollution than low-income whites.

Over the past decade, more researchers have focused on the correlation between segregation and broad pollution exposure. Residents of a city like Memphis, they have found, are exposed to more pollution than those living in a city like Tampa, Fla., which is less racially divided.

“Even though white residents in segregated cities were better off than residents of color in those segregated cities, those white residents were worse off than their white counterparts in less segregated cities,” said Rachel Morello-Frosch, a professor of environmental health at the University of California, Berkeley.

Studies have found this relationship between segregation and air pollution, water pollution and even noise pollution. A large body of literature shows that high exposure to certain pollution can cause asthma, heart disease and many other negative health effects.

“It’s so much pollution that it led not only to very high exposure to minorities but it actually bounces back to at least some whites,” said Michael Ash, a professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and an author of a study that looked at the impact of segregation on pollution levels.

There are several ways to look at segregation: by isolation, defined as the degree to which ethnic groups are clustered together, or by dissimilarity, defined as how evenly two groups are spread across an area. By either method, pollution is higher in more segregated communities.

The average white person in metropolitan America lives in a neighborhood that is 75 percent white. The average black person lives in a neighborhood that is 35 percent white and 45 percent black. Those numbers have not changed much since 1940.

These studies do not prove that segregation leads to more pollution, or vice versa. But the outcomes showing that all people who live in racially divided communities are exposed to higher levels of pollution probably would not have surprised Dr. King, according to King scholars.

“King thinks that racism divides the people who are most vulnerable and most disempowered for economic and political reasons,” said Brandon M. Terry, an assistant professor of African and African-American studies at Harvard and an editor of a new book on Dr. King’s political theories.

“In a community where there are really stark racial tensions it’s going to be really difficult to organize a large enough group to fight back against exploitative industries or corporations that don’t want to do their fair share to take care of environmental hazards,” Dr. Terry said. “All those people have to do is invoke the idea of a racial interest and they can split those groups quite easily.”

Several studies have shown that unequal societies invest less in environmental policies, monitoring and research.

“In more segregated cities, communities of color and the poor might be less able to have civic engagement power and influence land-use decision making,” said Dr. Morello-Frosch. “They have less ability to resist” when decisions are made about polluting activities, she said.

Dr. King may have foreshadowed this in his 1963 speech in Detroit. “Segregation is a cancer in the body politic,” he said, “which must be removed before our democratic health can be realized.”

via Dr. King Said Segregation Harms Us All. Environmental Research Shows He Was Right. – The New York Times

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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