Image by fernando zhiminaicela from Pixabay 

By Glenn Townes

As the number of cases and fatalities related to the COVID-19 pandemic continues to increase, some environmentalists contend that decades of systemic and purposeful environmental racism, may be a contributing factor to the inordinately high number of COVID-19 infections among people of color, across the country, including in New Jersey.
The global pandemic has continued to spotlight the enormous disparities in communities of color have experienced for centuries. Major industries have played a key role in contributing to some of those disparities—especially when it comes to the environment, according to various sources. For example, in a report from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2018, people of color are more likely to live near toxic and heavily polluted areas than any other groups. At the time, the report was highlighted in a number of articles related to the EPA’s unyielding efforts to dismantle and obliterate efforts to protect under-served communities from the health risks associated with living near toxic, unsanitary and potentially lethal areas. Some environmentalist contend the misguided efforts by the Trump administration, may have indirectly contributed to the disproportionate number of COVID-19 infections and deaths among people of color. For example, fatalities among African Americans in New Jersey is 50 percent higher than any other ethnic group in the state. Additionally, a report from the National Center for Environmental Assessment (NSCEP)–a scientific division of the EPA, showed African Americans are exposed to about 1.5 times more toxins, pollutants and airborne viruses than white people. Additionally, Hispanics had about 1.2 times the exposure to hazardous waste materials and other carcinogenic pollutants. Additionally, studies found that impoverished and urban communities had about 1.3 times more exposure to toxic materials than suburban counterparts.
The notion of environmental racism is not new and stems back to a Texas suburb–Sunnyside—one of the oldest Black communities in Houston. The community was at the center of one of the first national cases focused on environmental racism in 1979.  A group of African American homeowners filed a lawsuit against the city and a major waste management company. Among other things, the suit contended that putting a garbage and waste disposal facility in the mostly African American community constituted racial discrimination. And in 1982, residents in the mostly African American community of Warren, North Carolina protested the construction of a landfill that would accept and dispose of soil contaminated with poly chlorinated biphenyl (PCB)–a cancer causing chemical.  
While consistently accurate, reliable statistics and information continues to randomly trickle out from the federal government regarding the on-going impact of COVID-19 on all communities—especially marginalized and under-served ones—sociologists readily contend systemic racism—environmental and otherwise—is a contributor to the exponential number of cases in under-served communities. In a recent interview, Junia Howell, an urban sociologist at the University of Pittsburgh, said the federal government may delay or withhold racial data because the information can be misinterpreted and used to highlight  current questionable policies and procedures. “This amount of racial inequality is always with us and we rarely care until it comes up in our face and then we say it’s shameful and ask who’s fault it is,” she said.
And who’s fault is it that African Americans and people of color continue to lead the list of fatalities and people infirmed from COVID-19? Environmentalist contend under the guidance of the Trump and EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, the agency has continued to revise and, in some cases, eliminate various environmental procedures. In some cases the agency has ended some civil rights investigations—including some cases that may be eerily reminiscent to the historic cases in Houston and North Carolina more than 35 years ago. New Jersey Senator Cory Booker—a staunch advocate of environmental reforms, first coined the term “environmental justice” during his bid for the presidency last year. Booker was instrumental with two other lawmakers in forming the Environmental Justice Caucus in the Senate—a task force designed to address environmental racism.
Lastly, in an effort to address and highlight the need for awareness and change in how journalists cover and write about environmental issues, the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources (IJNR) is hosting a two-day virtual workshop later this month. The event will address a number of environmental issues, including how historic race-based housing discrimination shaped U.S. Cities and was a precursor to many of the environmental issues. To register for the virtual event, visit the organization’s web site at

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