Black Futures Must Involve Environmental Justice

Black Lives Matter leaders brilliantly reframed Black History Month to use each day in February to focus on a separate cultural or political issue facing African Americans.

Kids walking in a park
One in six black children is affected by asthma. (Damon Yancy / Shutterstock)

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Black Lives Matter leaders brilliantly reframed Black History Month, Black Future Month, to focus on a separate cultural or political issue facing African Americans every day in February.

It was so appropriate, so smart, to set aside time to not only grapple with a large set of issues—indelibly linked to the structural, institutional and individual racism our communities face—but to give time to envisioning ourselves and our communities as we want them to be.

The project is not an endeavor that can only be addressed during the shortest month of the year. It is an effort that must consume us daily, 24-7-365. We have far too much to do, far too much at stake, to not stay focused on our future year-round.

As we know, discrimination in the criminal injustice system, housing, education, employment and the lack of investment in our communities are obstacles to our success.

But too often overlooked when we talk about systemic racism is the need for environmental justice and ending environmental discrimination.

Black communities are overburdened with excessive amounts of air and water pollution, toxic and hazardous waste. Housing discrimination and lack of access to power causes our communities to get stuck with an unfair share of garbage dumps, waste transfer stations, oil refineries, power plants and bus depots.

Local and state officials make decisions daily about which communities will have to tolerate the garbage no one else wants. And, too often, those communities are ours.

And even if you're black and middle class and think you've been able to escape the hardships of the hood, think again, because the air that black middle class people breathe is still unequal. Race, indeed, matters.

A recent University of Minnesota study shows that black people all over the United States, whether in the cleanest cities or rural areas, breathe poorer quality air than whites.

The study measured nitrogen oxide pollution, which is produced by cars, construction equipment and industrial polluters and found 38 percent higher levels of nitrogen oxide in black communities than white communities.

Nitrogen oxide is linked to asthma and heart attacks.

And asthma, which has increased significantly for decades, has increased fastest among African Americans. The asthma rates for black children increased 50 percent between 2001 and 2009, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

While one in 10 white children have asthma and one in nine Latino children have asthma, the proportion of black children with asthma is significantly worse. One in six black children have asthma.

Asthma kills about nine people every day. It cause millions of days of missed school and work.

But right now, there's an opportunity to make a difference in lowering the impact of asthma on black communities.

The Environmental Protection Agency is considering setting a more protective health standard for ozone, more commonly called smog, which is emitted from the exhaust of cars, trucks, power plants and factories.

Reducing the amount of smog in the air, according to EPA analysis, could save thousands of lives and prevent nearly one million asthma attacks each year by 2025.

But big oil lobbyists and manufacturers are pushing back, prioritizing profits over people and trying to get EPA to leave the smog standard where it is.

Although a wealth of medical and scientific studies show our air is unhealthy, major polluters are offering the same old tired and untrue arguments they always make that tougher environmental protections will hurt the economy.

They ignore that fact that the economy tripled since 1970 when the Clean Air Act was passed and air quality began to improve.

I truly hope Obama ignores the noise and pushes the EPA to set a strong standard that will adequately protect public health based on the science, which is what the Clean Air Act requires.

I hope he will push hard for the benefit of his daughter Malia who has asthma, which he said, recently, is linked to air pollution.

I hope he will do it for all those who live with the possibility of waking up and trying to breathe but feel like they're being suffocated.

I hope he will do it because protecting public health is the right thing to do and because black lives matter and black futures matter.

For more information about asthma and smog click here.

This blog was originally posted on The Huffington Post on March 2, 2015.

Based in Washington, D.C., Keith is the National Communications Strategist for Partnerships and Intersectional Justice.