This year, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Tu Bishvat (the Jewish "New Year of the Trees") both occur on January 21, 2019, and the 15th of Shvat 5779. While many people are already familiar with the impacts of climate change, including sea level rise, more severe wildfires and hurricanes, species loss, ocean acidification, water pollution, food insecurity, and increasing health problems, fewer people recognize that communities of color are often the most severely impacted.
The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, is one example. Since 2014, Flint has not had safe water to drink because failing water infrastructure resulted in lead and other chemicals leaking into the drinking water. However, it is less known that historic red-lining and white flight were key contributors to the erosion of the water infrastructure. In this way, racism combined with pollution to target communities of color. While the state declared that the water was safe to drink in April 2018, four years since the crisis began, trust has eroded and the mayor still has concerns about the safety of the water.
Beyond Flint, communities of color are much more likely to experience disproportionate effects of pollution, climate change, and other environmental injustices. Race, even more than socioeconomic status, is the top predictor of one's proximity to toxic waste and polluting facilities in the U.S. African Americans are more likely to live close to an oil, gas, or coal plant. Studies show that this leads to African American children being “three times as likely to be admitted to the hospital and twice more likely to die from an asthma attack than a white American child. Though African Americans are less likely to smoke, they are more likely to die of lung disease than white Americans are.”
These impacts stem, in part, from a history of racial injustices, including unequal distribution of resources, lack of representation in government, and state-sanctioned discrimination. Even after this blatant discrimination was illegal, white flight, redlining, and continued discrimination perpetuated this inequality. Local government officials responsible for planning the location of factories and waste processing facilities also willfully ignored the impact it would have on communities of color.
These historic injustices continue to reverberate today. Studies as recently as 2018 indicate that communities of color in America are more likely to be exposed to particulate matter, a kind of pollution, as well as lead, chlorine, benzene, and other pollutants that contribute to asthma, low birth weight, high blood pressure, and cardiac dysfunction.
In Canada, these inequities affect First Nations communities, who are disproportionately impacted by the dumping of waste into the water system. Lack of access to drinking water has been an issue for First Nation communities for several decades and continues to be a problem today.
As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said in his 1967 Christmas sermon, “All life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny.” What Dr. King said over 50 years ago remains true today. The environmental destruction and pollution that we create does not merely affect ourselves, but all of humanity. And, more specifically, we have a responsibility to recognize how different communities are impacted differently. The evidence is clear that environmental injustice disproportionately impacts communities of color. Pursuing racial justice and economic justice also calls us to pursue environmental justice.
On this Tu Bishvat and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we hope you will join us in committing to protect the environment and end racial disparities:
- Each year, the Reform Movement honors the legacy of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by commemorating the Shabbat nearest to MLK Day as Shabbat Tzedek. Use the RAC’s Shabbat Tzedek resources in your Shabbat observance on January 18-19, 2019.
- Share this blog post with a friend and commit to learning about racial disparities in environmental pollution through these resources created by the NAACP’s environment and climate justice team.
- Help work toward racial justice by urging your member of Congress to co-sponsor the Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would reinstate oversight in areas of the country that have a history of discrimination through voting laws.