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Is Racism Making Us Sick?

By ,

Racism kills. As surely as heart disease or cancer, systemic racism lies at the core of what ails Black America–the underlying cause for health disparities and higher rates of mortality.

Racism’s lethal power is inextricably connected to place. When Black families fled the South during the Great Migration, they escaped Jim Crow, but were confronted by a different set of racial barriers.

They were bound by the new constraints of restrictive covenants, redlining and mob violence in cities like Chicago, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Gary and Detroit. The segregation that determined the boundaries of where Black Americans could live, work and go to school persists today.

Segregated neighborhoods bear a disproportionate burden of toxic contamination and are under-resourced when it comes to health care access, fresh food and safe spaces for recreation and exercise.

“Race is still the potent factor for predicting where Locally Unwanted Land Uses (LULUs) go,” according to Bob Bullard, PhD, of Texas Southern University. Bullard, often described as the father of the environmental justice movement, believes race trumps class when it comes to the environment. He says, “African Americans, even affluent African Americans, are more likely to live closer to and in communities that are more polluted than poor white families that make $10,000 a year.”

The tragic health consequences of racial segregation are legion. Here’s a snapshot of some of the most glaring instances:

  1. Richmond, California—where a majority Black community is situated within a ring of five major oil refineries, three chemical companies, eight Superfund sites, dozens of other toxic waste sites, highways, two rail yards, ports and marine terminals where tankers dock.
  1. Chicago’s Altgeld Gardens—a “toxic doughnut,” which holds 90 percent of the entire city’s LULUs made up of 50 hazardous landfills, and over 250 chemical waste dumps. These LULUs have resulted in significant increases in cancer, miscarriage, neonatal disorders and asthma. Ninety percent of the area residents are Black and 60 percent meet the federal poverty standards.
  1. 48217—Michigan’s most polluted zip code, a pocket of southwest Detroit which is 84 percent Black, and where residents suffer from high rates of bloody noses, asthma, respiratory illness, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes, and cancer.
  1. Sixty miles further north in Flint—state leaders switched the city’s water source to the polluted Flint River as a cost saving measure. But they got more than they bargained for when the water tested dangerously high for lead. The governor and other state officials stonewalled for 18 months before acknowledging the crisis. During that time, 30,000 school age children were exposed to lead in the water. Two years after the initial crisis, Flint water still remains unsafe.

Racial segregation doesn’t just predict proximity to pollution but can also dictate access to care. In Chicago, two Black women die from breast cancer every week.  Of the city’s 25 community areas with the highest breast cancer rates– 24 are predominately Black. And only one of the 24 has a hospital with a cancer program approved by the American College of Surgeons Commission on Cancer.

If we really want to end health disparities– we have to tackle systemic racism and segregation first.

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