If you are puzzled by how the two interrelate, let us first define some unfamiliar concepts. Environmental racism, a branch of racism referring to the inequitable access to healthy environmental conditions, resources, protection, and decision-making, was coined in 1982 but has been practiced since the discovery of the New World. When European colonizers arrived in the Western Hemisphere, they stole land from the indigenous people for the exploitation of natural resources and created a social ladder based on race to coerce the natives into hard labor. As America transitioned from African chattel slavery to sharecropping, essentially a continuation of slavery with a different name, free men remained near their former slave plantations on account of debt and poverty. Through industrialization led by affluent white male developers with power, nearby plantations would be replaced by petrochemical plants without the consent of black residents. This transition would lead to the creation of sacrifice zones, areas experiencing worse environmental conditions due to nearby fossil-fuel emitting industries. And of course, these zones remain predominantly inhabited by low-income residents and people of color.
In the 1930’s, the federal government introduced the practice of redlining, deeming some neighborhoods as riskier than others and thus denying their financial services to black and brown residents. Redlined neighborhoods would soon be crowded with nearby highways, factories, and power plants, creating disproportionately high levels of pollution compared to predominantly white neighborhoods. Overtime, these racist housing and development practices have created a society where neighborhoods are segregated by race and income. Where middle-income black Americans are more likely to live among low-income, highly polluted areas than low-income white Americans. Where black Americans breathe 56% more pollution than they produce while white Americans breathe 17% less pollution than they produce. The one million black Americans living within a half mile of a natural gas facility and 68% of black Americans living within 30 miles of a coal plant face a higher risk of suffering from birth defects and heart attacks. During natural disasters like floods and droughts or other forms of manmade environmental degradation, already-vulnerable Black and Latino communities are hit the hardest due to lacking the adequate infrastructure and insurance to recover. The geographical location of American residents is not a coincidence but has been meticulously plotted out by developers and sustained through law to ensure that the hierarchy continues. To keep black and brown people at the bottom and then proceed to pull the stairs out from under them.
So how is Covid-19 related to environmental racism? Well typically, Covid-19 cases are more severe among humans with underlying medical conditions such as heart or respiratory diseases, and we know that heart and respiratory diseases are contracted from exposure to polluted air. This is why black and brown communities are experiencing the deadliest of Covid cases: worse air quality equals higher severity of Covid cases. If black communities are redlined, swimming in poverty, being suffocated not only viciously on the streets but gradually by the air they breathe, how can we expect them to bounce back from a global pandemic without sufficient healthcare and insurance? How can we expect them to care about climate change when their world is crumbling around them?