Clean air doesn't need explicit racial targeting
Unraveling a web of confusion
Last week’s New York Times article “White House Takes Aim at Environmental Racism, but Won’t Mention Race” was, I think, meant to make the Biden administration’s approach to addressing air pollution look perverse and weird, like they’re dodging the real issue out of political or legal cowardice.
But I think an understanding of the racial disparities in pollution exposure actually points to the opposite conclusion. Precisely because a large set of pollution problems disproportionately affect Black Americans, you don’t need a racial targeting strategy to advance racial equality. What you need is a strategy to reduce air pollution, particularly in the places where air pollution problems are most severe. Just as any strategy to redistribute money from rich to poor helps to close the racial wealth gap and any strategy to tax the rich and expand the welfare state helps to close the racial income gap, any strategy to reduce air pollution will reduce the racial gap in pollution exposure.
Or to be more precise, any effective strategy to reduce air pollution will reduce the racial gap.
But problems arise when eco-NIMBYism replaces actual pollution reduction and simply enhances local communities’ ability to say no, preventing some useful projects from getting built and dumping the harmful stuff in the communities that have the least political clout. That’s a real social justice issue. But real policies to reduce the amount of pollution disproportionately help the people who face the biggest pollution problems, closing gaps without racial targeting and/or bespoke “environmental justice” initiatives. Justice flows naturally from solving the problem.
Don’t overthink the racial pollution gap
Friedman’s piece is full of examples of advocates who seem to be overthinking this issue and creating unnecessary political difficulties. Here’s one:
“When you look at the most powerful predictor of where the most industrial pollution is, race is the most potent predictor,” said Robert Bullard, a professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University and a pioneer in the environmental justice movement. “Not income, not property values, but race. If you’re leaving race out, how are you going to fix this?”
Christopher Tessum, an assistant professor of environmental engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and lead author of that study, said in order to understand the communities most affected by air pollution, if one is looking at income alone, “you’re missing a lot of the story.”
What Bullard and Tessum are saying is, to the best of my understanding, true. If you want to understand the geographical distribution of pollution in the United States you need to use race as a variable with independent explanatory power over and above income or whatever else.
But if you’re doing pollution cleanup, you don’t need to target by income or by race or by any other set of demographic criteria — you can target by pollution.
To take a non-racial (but related) example, air pollution is generally a bigger problem in urban areas than in rural areas. But that doesn’t mean that helping city-dwellers with their air quality problems requires a targeted program to address urban air pollution. It means that if you reduce air pollution, the benefits disproportionately flow to people who live in or near big cities. And conversely, while air quality is generally good in rural areas, if you happen to live in a rural place where the air quality isn’t good, the fact that this is an unusual situation doesn’t help you. Your lungs don’t care that statistically speaking, as a rural person, the air you breathe is probably pretty clean. The air is either clean or it isn’t, and if it isn’t, that’s bad for your lungs.
Here’s another advocate:
“You can be a person of color in a middle-income community and still be disproportionately impacted,” said Mustafa Santiago Ali, vice president of environmental justice at the National Wildlife Federation.
He’s right. But again, if you just target the communities that have the worst pollution, that addresses the problem. There’s no need to debate whether race or income is the better instrument because in this case, we can specifically measure the variable of interest, which is pollution itself.
The racial air pollution gap is a big deal
And make no mistake, the racial gap in exposure to air pollution is a big deal.
The broad outlines of the disparity have been known for a long time, but in recent years America’s number-crunching power and academics’ interest in racial disparities have both increased. We now have access to papers like “Air pollution exposure disparities across US population and income groups,” which was published in January in Nature by Abdulrahman Jbaily, Xiaodan Zhou, Jie Liu, Ting-Hwan Lee, Leila Kamareddine, Stéphane Verguet, and Francesca Dominici. The authors combined detailed small-area demographic data from the Census Bureau1 with satellite imagery, climate models, and machine learning to estimate pollution levels in each of America’s 32,000 ZIP Code Tabulation Areas (ZCTA).2
What did they find?
In 2016, the average fine particulate concentration for the Black population was 13.7 percent higher than for the white population.
As the Black population share of a ZCTA rises, so does the level of particulate pollution, with a particularly steep escalation when the Black population exceeds 85 percent.
There are similar but gentler gradients for Asian and Latin populations.
The Native American population is even less exposed to pollution than the white population (I assume because it is heavily rural).
So this is a big issue. And I think you can see there are a lot of different underlying factors in play — income, relative levels of urbanization — but specific racialized decisions in historic urban planning and contemporary zoning and land use are all in the mix.
The Jbaily paper finds a significant nationwide decline in air pollution between 2000 and 2016, which is great. But we can and should do more. Every internal combustion engine car that’s replaced with an EV or mass transit helps, and so does every coal plant that’s switched off in favor of clean energy.
But again, the right way to look at this is that reducing the major sources of air pollution has racial equity benefits, not that we need a bespoke racial targeting system for assessing air pollution.
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