Sanders Gets Environmental Racism

Co-authored by Helen Scharber, Assistant Professor of Economics at Hampshire College and Anders Fremstad, Assistant Professor of Economics at Colorado State University

People of color get sick and die from environmental pollution at disproportionately high rates in the United States. African-Americans are three times more likely than whites to be hospitalized or die from asthma. Latino children are twice as likely to have unsafe levels of lead in their blood than other children. Disparities in nitrogen dioxide exposure alone leads to 7,000 unnecessary deaths from heart failure among people of color each year.

This environmental racism is only rarely mentioned in the media and it has received little attention from most presidential candidates. Sen. Bernie Sanders is an exception: His racial justice platform explicitly commits to ending environmental violence along with physical, political, legal and economic violence in communities of color.

Sanders recognizes that African-Americans, Latinos, indigenous peoples, immigrants and other communities of color are disproportionately burdened by environmental hazards like toxic air and water pollution, lead and pesticide exposures, and the effects of climate-related disasters. Sanders' acknowledgment of the disproportionate morbidity and mortality faced by communities of color from injustices is important. The first step in solving a problem is admitting it exists. He also understands that environmental injustices in this country are not accidental or disconnected, but rather "the product of political marginalization and institutional racism."

Political marginalization and institutional racism result in an unjust distribution of the benefits and costs of our economic system. Elites disproportionately profit from extracting resources and dumping pollutants into air and water, while communities of color disproportionately bear the costs. The crisis in Flint, Michigan is just one recent, highly publicized example. In general, businesses pollute the environment where there is little political resistance, so they avoid wealthy neighborhoods and instead congregate in and around poor communities, especially communities of color.

Technological fixes can help reduce these costs but do not ultimately solve the problem. To get at its roots, we must reduce the political and economic inequalities that prop up the power imbalances between those who profit most from environmental degradation and those who suffer.

Sanders has proposed targeted policies to address environmental injustice, including enforcing regulations that are already on the books, cleaning up Superfund sites and reversing discriminatory zoning policies. But his policies that reduce income and power inequalities more broadly are equally important in addressing environmental racism. Polluting facilities are commonly sited in communities where political resistance is expected to be low or ineffectual. Communities with more economic and political power can keep polluting facilities out of their backyards and demand life-sustaining environmental and health policies.

Addressing climate change is also critical to leveling the playing field for communities of color. As we witness the mounting destruction of climate change - including flooding, droughts and decreased access to fresh water and food - marginalized communities will suffer the most and will be least able to buy protection. Sanders' bold climate policy, which would phase out fossil fuels, put a price on carbon, ramp up renewables and provide job transition assistance, is our best hope for achieving climate justice. Good climate policy design can also reduce health-harming pollutants like particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide, synergistically addressing multiple causes of environmental injustice.

Sanders understands that safe air, water and built environments are human rights, not privileges for those who can afford them. He knows that the root of environmental injustice is institutional racism and that solving the problem requires a redistribution of power. Critically, Sanders is not beholden to industries that profit from extraction and pollution. No other candidate is better positioned to put people before profits and provide a clean and safe environment for all.

This article originally appeared in US News & World Report here