S.E. Williams | Executive Editor
“The striking aspect of the Nation’s fire problem is the indifference with which Americans confront the subject. [The same can be said for racism]. Destructive fire takes a huge toll in lives, injuries, and property losses, yet there is no need to accept those losses with resignation. There are many measures—often very simple precautions—that can be taken to reduce those losses significantly.”– America Burning
This week we learned Black employees at the California Air Resources Board (CARB) have alleged racism is rampant at the agency.
Although the news was unnerving, the idea of racism being rampant at a municipal, state, or federal agency is certainly no revelation.
However, for a group of African American employees to band together in purpose and present the agency with a 13-page letter detailing claims of widespread, routine, and systemic racism warrants attention especially since it is alleged at the very agency with overarching responsibility for protecting Californians from the harmful and devastating effects of air pollution which disproportionately impact Blacks and other poor communities of color.
The first indication of credibility to the employees’ complaint is evidenced in the demographics of the organization. According to 2018 census data although only 5.5% of the state’s population was Black, their representation at CARB falls even below that number—only 4.4% or 73 of the agency’s 1627 employees are African American.
According to a report by the California Black Media, CARB Chairperson, Mary D. Nichols also came under fire earlier this year for appearing to compare the brutal death of George Floyd who died struggling for breath under the knee of a Minnesota police officer in May, to the ongoing struggle for clean air as it relates to environmental racism.
Few can argue the timing of the comment (made in June) was insensitive and taken in context of complaints about racism raised by Blacks in the agency she chairs, her comments also appeared disingenuous.
However, few can argue racism is deadly regardless of whether it is perpetrated by police on the streets or industries and corporations in boardrooms who push against environmental regulations designed to improve air quality in some of the most disenfranchised communities in the state which are largely inhabited by people of color.
By simple comparison however, although police shot and killed an average of 209 Black Americans across the country each year between 2017 and October 2020, it is no secret the burden of air pollution shortens the lives of Black Americans. According to the American Lung Association, poorer people and some racial and ethnic groups, especially Black and Brown people, are among those who often face higher exposure to pollutants.
In addition, a recent Environmental Protection Agency review of research related to the health effects of particle pollution concluded, “[N]onwhite populations, especially Blacks, faced higher risk from particle pollution.
Other studies examining the impact of air pollution on premature deaths have determined among those with limited income and resources, especially those who live in predominantly Black communities, suffer the greatest risk of premature death from particle pollution.
Interestingly, data also shows income does not drive the differences in this regard as Blacks with incomes higher than many Whites are still at greater risk—possibly due to the chronic stress of racism.
Finally, pollutants from traffic sources also disproportionately impact Blacks who tend to live near high traffic areas owed to decades of housing discrimination and segregation.
Premature deaths, mainly from heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, as well as acute respiratory infections in children—all of which heavily impact Blacks—are all linked to air pollution. Although the CDC reported the death rate for Blacks declined 25% percent from 1999 to 2015, glaring disparities still exist.
Admittedly, the disparity is certainly linked in part to the lack of access to affordable care, preventative care is not the sole solution. The California/the nation must do a better job of proactively addressing environmental factors that contribute to the health disparities that result in premature death.
So, when a critical agency largely responsible for mitigating air quality is accused of racism it calls to question how committed the agency actually is to creating the necessary change to improve the quality of life for Black people by reducing their exposure to toxic particulates?
Whether Black people are fighting for criminal justice reform and police accountability, equal employment, access to quality education, health care, housing, or environmental justice—everything is on fire in the Black community, everything is a priority.
As Blacks are forced to relentlessly fight so many fires year after year, maybe there is something to be learned from municipal fire agencies who have seen a near 33 % decline in fires (excluding wildfires) over the past 40 years. This, while the nation’s population increased by roughly 44 % during the same period.
How was this accomplished? The nation made it a priority and followed a series of recommendations presented in a groundbreaking 1973 report titled America Burning which stated rather than waiting to react and put fires out after they are blazing—as the nation has struggled unsuccessfully to do regarding racial disparities and the Black community— it stressed the need for less flammable materials, increased public knowledge of fire prevention and the establishment of several federal fire research and response training organizations—substitute racism and discrimination for municipal fires and maybe there is a model here the nation can follow.
Black people are fighting for their lives on multiple fronts and the recent dust up at the California Air Resources Board is just another area where the community must leverage its focus. However, Blacks at best, are 5.5% of California’s population and just under 14% of the national population. It must fight with a coalition of others equally committed to justice and equality.
In this pursuit however, it remains the responsibility of Blacks like those at CARB to continue ringing fire alarms to bring attention and galvanize support to help mitigate the myriad of burning issues negatively impacting Blacks in California and across the country.
The goal of California’s…the nation’s Black community… is not “Burn Baby Burn!” But, “Learn, America, Learn!”
Of course, this is just my opinion. I’m keeping it real.
S.E. Williams is editor of the IE Voice and Black Voice News.