The white supremacy of black carbon: On systemic racism and air pollution

white nationalists charlottesville

A group of racist assholes calling themselves white nationalists marching with tiki torches at the University of Virginia on August 11 (courtesy of Zach D. Roberts/Getty Images).

In the wake of the election of Donald Trump and, particularly, the explicit white nationalist rallies and violence in cities like Charlottesville, commentators have been having a discussion about what, exactly, constitutes white supremacy.

Ta-Nehisi Coates has argued that Trump’s “ideology is white supremacy, in all its truculent and sanctimonious power.” In response, white liberals like Jonathan Chait pushed back, arguing that calling people like Trump and those around him white supremacists cheapens the power of the term.

Atlantic writer Vann Newkirk did a great job dissecting this debate in a post last week. As he noted, the argument that Chait et al. put forth obfuscates the true scope of systemic racism, making it so that “the only way to be identified as a white supremacist is to say you are one.”

There is no Racism Bone

A number of far better writers than I have discussed this phenomenon in a far more enlightening manner than I can, but I agree with Newkirk that the debate around racism has morphed into some sort of grotesque caricature. Every time someone does or says something that is clearly racist, which Donald Trump does on at least a weekly basis, the pearl clutchers pop up and tell us how that person does not have a racist bone in his body, as though racism is a medical condition that replaces your coccyx with The Racism Bone.

The literature is pretty clear that we all have implicit biases. That’s likely an evolutionary trait that helped our ancestors survive when they lived in small, competing tribal groups. Trusting members of your group and distrusting those from other groups may be a useful feature if the other groups are a direct threat to the resources you need for survival.

But racism is about actions, not hard-coded biases. You cannot choose your genes, but you can choose not to treat a black person like shit. Like everyone, I have my implicit biases and prejudices. It’s up to me to not act on them.

As Newkirk writes,

[A]s new policies intersected with public opinion and genuine policy victories won by the civil-rights movement, expressing racism became gauche, and then taboo. That taboo itself crystallized a self-conceptualization of whiteness as innately anti-racist. In turn, charges of racism themselves became epithets, and the mantle of white supremacy was relegated only to the ranks of those white folks foolish or ideological enough not to abide by the taboo…

It goes without saying that this realignment almost exclusively benefitted white supremacists, who did not suddenly die with the passage of the Voting Rights Act. In no small bit of class warfare, whites who most often carried out direct violence in white supremacy’s name took the heat, giving space to the white men in suits who did their work quietly with litigation and city-planning maps. Those people of color who critiqued white supremacy were cemented as malcontents and agitators, themselves racists or “race-baiters” who sought to exploit white guilt to upend American racial harmony.

As a society, we decided that overt racism was bad, and so the shouts and fire hoses of Bull Connor gave way to the whispers and trickles of institutional racism. And this is where the broader concept of white supremacy comes in handy. Just because people put their robes and hoods in the attic does not mean that they shed their racism too. The same outcomes that decades of Jim Crow brought – segregation, poverty, police brutality, voter suppression – are still there, embedded in the system.

White supremacy, as a theoretical concept, describes (as Newkirk quotes Frances Lee Ansley):

[A] political, economic and cultural system in which whites overwhelmingly control power and material resources, conscious and unconscious ideas of white superiority and entitlement are widespread, and relations of white dominance and non-white subordination are daily reenacted across a broad array of institutions and social settings.

White supremacy and environmental justice

One facet of this form of white supremacy that we tend to give short shrift is environmental (in)justice. This field of scholarship and activism, developed by greats like Dr. Robert Bullard and Mustafa Santiago Ali, discusses the disproportionate pollution burden that low-income communities of color bear in this country.

The recent series of hurricanes that ravaged the United States this summer have helped bring this issue back to the fore. We’ve seen how communities of color located near chemical plants and Superfund sites in the Houston area suffered acute and chronic harm from the effects of Hurricane Harvey. Most recently we have watched as Puerto Ricans struggle to survive without access to electricity or clean water, conditions made possible through the island’s colonial history and territorial status.

On this site, I have generally focused on the environmental justice aspects of air pollution, since that’s my area of expertise. As I’ve noted before, the single strongest correlate for air pollution is not income or poverty status; it is race.

This is not simply some unforeseen or incidental side effect of erstwhile good policies; environmental injustice is a product of a system of white supremacy. It’s the outcome of decades of deciding that those with the least voice and power are those who can bear the costs of what the powerful deem progress.

Transportation, air pollution, and white supremacy

Unfortunately, just as we’ve seen that explicit racism and acute white supremacy, loosed by the White Supremacist-in-Chief, are not confined to our past, so too does new research show that the white supremacy of air pollution continues to damage the lungs, hearts, and brains of people of color.

In a study published last month in Environmental Health Perspectives, three researchers from the Universities of Minnesota and Washington examined disparities in exposure to transportation-related air pollution (TRAP) by race and socioeconomic status from 2000 to 2010.

As the authors note, racial minorities and low-income households are significantly more likely to live near major roads, which exposes them to nearly three times the level of TRAP. While efforts to clean up vehicles helped reduce nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels by 37% from 2000-2010 in the US, we do not know how this affected disparities in exposure.

In order to explore this question, the authors analyzed the relationship between TRAP exposure and demographic data at the Census block level in 2000 and 2010.

In 2000, the block groups with the highest share of nonwhite residents had NO2 concentrations that were 13.2 parts per billion (ppb) higher than the block groups with the lowest nonwhite share. By 2010, this difference had fallen to 8.9 ppb, suggesting that the greatest reductions occurred in those communities with the highest level of exposure.

But the absolute reduction disappeared when the authors considered relative changes. In 2000, the block groups with the greatest share of nonwhite residents had 2.5 times higher levels of NO2 than the whitest block groups; by 2010, this disparity had actually increased to 2.7-fold.

The authors concluded that “eliminating disparities may require additional policies and interventions that target the underlying causes of environmental injustice.” This is not how we typically approach environmental issues, particularly air pollution.

How white supremacy harms unborn black children

The second study, also published in Environmental Health Perspectives (look, it’s a good journal, and it’s open access), looks at what factors help explain the persistent disparity in preterm birth (PTB) rates for white and black children, a topic I’ve explored in the past.

Using data on all live births in California from 2005-2010, the researchers attempted to disaggregate how much of this disparity is attributable to individual demographic factors (e.g. maternal age, education, Medicaid status), neighborhood socioeconomic factors (e.g. unemployment rate, percent of people with less than high school education, poverty rate), and air pollution (annual concentrations of NO2 and PM2.5).

According to the researchers, the individual- and neighborhood-level variables, taken as a whole, each explained a greater share of the disparity in birth outcomes than did air pollution.

But that changes when you isolate individual factors. Annual levels of PM2.5, the most dangerous of the criteria air pollutants, explained 4.5% of the difference in small for gestational age (SGA) outcomes for black and white infants. That was higher than neighborhood poverty levels (3.8%) and on par with individual Medicaid enrollment (5.2%).

The researchers argue,

Recently, the importance of the contribution of differences in neighborhood environment and exposure to air pollution to black-white disparities in adverse birth outcomes has received increasing attention. Our findings suggest that such a focus is warranted, because we find that measured factors such as average PM2.5 exposure is also a contributor to racial/ethnic disparities. Reducing PM 2.5 exposure through diverse equitable air pollution policies in high-exposure zip codes may help reduce black-white disparities in PTB.

These studies add further evidence to the environmental justice literature and highlight the way in which air pollution, specifically, and environmental quality, generally, need to be considered as threads of the broader web of white supremacy.

Just because urban planners did not fully understand how TRAP would retard the development of black children in utero does not mean that they can be held harmless for plowing through black neighborhoods to build highways. They are all part in parcel to the broader issue of systemic racism that has driven policymaking in the US since its inception.

Moreover, clinging to the individual definition of white supremacy, as Chait et al. suggest, helps forgive all of us who contribute to and benefit from this broader patchwork. Limiting our view of white supremacy to people wearing bedsheets or swastikas serves to perpetuate the thousand little racist acts that keep the system in place each day.

For as Cynthia Carr wrote in Our Town,

I’d thought a lot about the Klan — its terrible usefulness. It represented the white id. That’s why the masking was so necessary; a Kluxer could be any white person. So it was tempting to go shout at them. It seems that it is now a major Klan function to act as the bad white people, so the rest of us can think we’re the good ones. That peaked hat is a sort of lightning rod allowing us to discharge our guilt. We’re not like them! And it feels good to look at their racism instead of our own. They tempt us into feeling self-righteous, when very few of us have earned the right to feel more than humble, considering our history and the damage yet to undo.

I mean, how hard is it for most white people, really, to say they disagree with the Ku Klux Klan?