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Seeing Ourselves in the Face of Others: Environmental Racism and COVID-19

A person putting on a mask.
Masks obscure us while also highlighting our vulnerability.

Written by Faith in Place's Communications Director, Elena Bettis, MA, MPH.

The father of environmental justice, Dr. Robert Bullard, said the United States, “was founded on four principles: free land, free labor, free men, and free enterprise.” While these principles, “looked great on paper, in reality, none of them were true.”1 They were not true in the past and they are not true today.

On May 8th, we were reminded of this false perception of freedom. Thousands of Americans took to the streets and ran 2.23 miles to honor the 26th birthday of Ahmaud Arbery. Ahmaud was 25-year old innocent black men shot in February while running in a Georgia neighborhood. The hashtag #IRunWithMaud trended on social media, declaring solidarity in the belief that our country is not fully free. Ahmaud’s death is not isolated, as the news of hate crimes are all too familiar. Racism is in the essence of our identity as Americans. Legally rooted discrimination is embedded in the framework in which our society exists.

These insidious root causes of injustice are seen in overt incidents like the murder of Mr. Arbery, as well as in more disguised realities like health disparities. This reality is being magnified during the COVID-19 pandemic. Black and Hispanic communities are not contracting and dying from COVID-19 at higher rates because of their race or ethnicity. It is because health is dependent on a complex combination of where people work, live, get food, and interact. Decades of systemized racism make certain zip codes harder to live in and health harder to achieve.

These connections go further. The graphic below shows a haunting similarity between maps visualizing a lack of access to health care and healthy food, maps showing cancer and heart disease rates, and a map showing the number of COVID-19 deaths in the Chicago area. History shapes the quality of life in zip codes and it has tangible, real effects on daily life. Zipcode matters.

Higher rates of Covid-19 deaths correlate with social determinants of health.
Higher rates of Covid-19 deaths correlate with social determinants of health.

The following graphic highlights some of the reasons disadvantaged communities are experiencing these higher burdens of disease and mortality. Notice that many of these reasons are shaped by decades of discriminatory lending, environmental, employment, housing, and immigration policies.

Disadvantaged communities remain resilient despite discriminatory policies, lack of resources, and a constant toll on mental, physical, and emotional health. That resilience is tested, however, during critical moments like COVID-19. With fewer and inequitably distributed emergency relief resources, the pandemic’s impacts are more damaging, and recovery will be slower for these communities.

The unfortunate reality is that if we continue our current course, maps for the impacts of climate change will look like those above. Those most acutely affected by negative air quality, rising costs of food, flooding, and heatwaves will live in the same zip codes as those currently struggling with high rates of COVID-19. Dr. Natasha DeJarnett, an environmental health policy analyst, summarizes this idea saying, “Though we are all at risk to the health threats of climate change, some groups are more vulnerable, and thereby less resilient, to the health threats.”6

We believe responses to COVID-19 and climate change must both be rooted in equity. Dr. Bullard shares, “When we start applying modern-day policy remedies without looking at the... legacy of racism that created those communities, we can further exacerbate the inequality.7

As people of faith, we see this challenge as a call to live into our collective identity. Our faiths call us out of cultural individualism and into a space where we can hold the pain and separation years of racism created. From that place, we can move forward together. Dr. Gail Christopher, the founder of the Ntianu Center for Healing and Nature, shares that, “In order to move forward, this nation must heal the wounds of our past and learn to work together with civility, and indeed, with love. We must build the individual and collective capacity to “see ourselves in the face of the other.”8 As we “see ourselves in the face of others,” we can find new solutions that meet the magnitude of the crises we face.

Jason Vaughn, one of Ahmaud Arbery’s football coaches, shared with the New York Times recently that, it “is going be a long road to justice".9 Recognizing the discrimination that shapes our society and finding collective, equity-based solutions is hard. None of us have ever experienced a world not shaped by racism. To create a new world together can seem unimaginable at times. But this is the only true path forward; the only path that meets the demands and the nature of the problem. May our communal commitment to justice carry us each day and may it help us seek solutions that create a future bearing true freedom for all people.

To learn more ways to support justice-based climate and environmental justice solutions, check out our programs below and get involved:

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