Environmental Racism

Summer 2020 Podcast 2

Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Liberty and Justice For All Podcast. This is Emily Olsen, checking in from Salt Lake City. In my first attempt to begin this podcast two years ago, I wrote a piece about race and equality. Here is an excerpt:

“When the media broke the news last summer that ICE was separating children from their parents at the borders, regardless of whether they were requesting asylum or attempting to enter illegally, I wrote a letter to Senator Orrin Hatch pleading with him to do something in the name of protecting families, as families are a big focus here in Utah. Immigration is not typically a subject that Hatch gets involved with, but surprisingly, he did this time. It was shortly afterwards that Hatch, along with 12 other Republican senators, were successful in getting Trump to change his policy and stop the separations.

“I am sure that many others also wrote to Hatch on this topic, but I would like to think that, in addition to my numerous prayers in this regard, my humble letter may have played a small part. We never know of the influence we can have. Each of us can make a difference. I pray for the children and parents who are still separated – they number more than 400 at this time. These children will suffer lasting effects from this separation, and I hate that it was my government that hurt them in such a thoughtless way. These people have been treated like chattel just because of their political status, and I would argue that the action against them reeks of blatant racist overtones.”

Only slightly better than before, families seeking asylum or attempting to enter illegally into the United States have been held together in detention centers ever since – that is, if they could track down the parents and children and actually reunite them. Gratefully, in the last week of June 2020, a judge ruled that children in custody with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) must be released by mid-July in compliance with the Flores Act, but also because of the threat of exposure to the new coronavirus.

However, the judge did not require that parents be released with their children – in fact, the children will most likely be transferred to the custody of another family member, if available, or  guardian, which will cause separation stress to the children all over again. The Flores Act requires that children retained by ICE should only be held for 20 days or less, but the Trump Administration has not observed the law until now.

Such a transfer will be traumatic for the children, but the threat of coronavirus exposure is particularly imminent and perhaps the greater threat. Last week 11 individuals in custody at one of the three ICE family detention centers located in Texas and Pennsylvania have been diagnosed with Covid-19. In addition, four employees at the three facilities have also tested positive. In addition, more than 2,500 adult immigrants in custody have contracted the virus. At least 800 of those have been placed in isolation or observation, and gratefully some have been released, according to CBS News.

You may ask, why do we give special attention to these immigrants when we are all facing exposure to Covid-19? But most of these immigrants should not be held at all by the government. Seeking asylum is not illegal, not by U.S. or international law. Regardless, if they get sick, ICE is responsible for giving them the care they need – and ICE is liable if these immigrants die or suffer lasting effects from the disease while in custody. You would think the government would not want such mud on their hands, but this detainment is a Trump campaign promise, thus making Trump less willing to back down.

Unfortunately, all Latinos, not just ICE-detained immigrants, face increased exposure to the virus, and so do African Americans, according to statistics. NPR reports that, unfortunately, African Americans are at least twice as likely than whites to perish from the disease – not just contract the illness or get hospitalized, but to actually die. African Americans make up 30 percent of the population nationally but account for 56 percent of Covid-19 deaths. Unfortunately, in a handful of states, that rate is three or more times greater. Also, U.S. Latinos are proportionally more likely to contract the disease, and in eight states, they are four times more likely than whites.

Statistics in the state of Utah align with these findings. As of the end of June, the state has had 22,217 positive cases of the virus with 172 deaths, according to ABC4 Utah and the Utah Department of Health. Latinos make up 14.2 percent of the population here but make up 42.9 percent of Covid-19 cases and about 25 percent of deaths. Whites, which make up 78 percent of the Utah population, account for only 38.5 percent of present Covid-19 cases. Other people of color are also more likely to experience more severe symptoms than whites.

NPR reports that this racial discrepancy is not a “genetic issue,” but rather a result of racial inequities. People of color are more likely to be employed in what are considered essential jobs right now, which means they are likely to interact with more people on a daily basis than those who are able to work remotely from home. They are also less able to establish separate quarantine areas in their homes, should a household member get sick.

But racial inequities that affect health go deeper than employment and home size. People of color are more likely to be poor and to experience what is called environmental racism – they are more likely to be exposed to harmful chemicals in the air, water, and elsewhere because of where they live. Cheaper real estate is often in closer proximity to factories, refineries, and freight train or truck routes, which expose these residents to chemicals that big business and government organizations are less likely to regulate, according to The Atlantic.

Because of air pollution, poor people often contract asthma and other similar ailments on top of other health conditions. For example, the poor are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes at a younger age than other socioeconomic groups because they have less access to affordable and effective healthcare and in the inner-city they have less access to fresh fruits and vegetables. These conditions make people of color more likely to not only contract Covid-19, but to experience more serious symptoms, get hospitalized, and even perish.

The new coronavirus is not unique in its treatment of African Americans. It is simply exposing racial inequities that have existed in the United States for centuries. Forced to emigrate to this country centuries ago because of slavery, African Americans have been, and continue to be, treated not only as lesser, but as subhuman. Their history has come to the forefront through the Black Lives Matter movement, which began last month in response to the brutal and senseless death of George Floyd while in the custody of four police officers on the streets of Minneapolis. His strangulation, which lasted for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, was caught on video by a courageous 17-year-old girl who filmed the cruel exchange on her cell phone. Protests erupted almost immediately in Minnesota and quickly followed in communities throughout the country and the world. And the protests have continued every day since.

The virus itself has been affectively discriminatory, but so have political leaders in their management of the disease. Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, for example, has still refused to issue a mandate for his residents to wear masks while in public, even though his state is experiencing a dramatic jump in cases, with 87,709 confirmed cases and 2,849 deaths as of July 2. At 17,500, young adults aged 18 to 29 account for more Covid-19 cases than any other age group in the state, and many of them are Latino, who are generally younger than the general population, according to the Ledger-Enquirer. And the Georgia Department of Public Health reports that African Americans account for almost 25,000 (or 30 percent) of Georgia’s cases.

Several conservative leaders elected throughout the country at state and municipal levels have taken President Trump’s lead to not wear masks, but recently Vice President Pence, and finally, Trump, have begun promoting the wearing of masks. However, few conservative governors have followed suit by mandating masks in public, even though the simple act of wearing a cloth or disposable piece of paper on your face has been proven to reduce the spread of the disease.

Without a vaccine or even a reliable drug treatment for the disease, the wearing of masks when we are around others is the best line of defense. Covid-19 cases have skyrocketed in recent weeks, and a majority of states now have caseloads that are out of control. In the last week of June, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that people traveling to New York from states with positivity rates of greater than 10 percent are now mandated to quarantine for 14 days before entering public places. And embarrassingly, the European Union has issued a travel ban to U.S. residents because of our outbreaks.

Why do these conservatives downplay the recommendations of scientific and medical experts? Has our society eroded into forgetting about The Enlightenment? You know, the movement that started 300 years ago? At least Texas is mandated to wear masks now. They have double the number of cases compared to Georgia. But it has taken way too long to get to this – compared to just about every other country in the world, we are at least two months behind in reducing the spread of Covid-19, and it will probably take three times longer for us to catch up. Contract tracing and quarantining becomes a bear with so many people infected.

Clearly, conservative leaders have considered other factors as more important than the safety of their residents. Many of these leaders hide behind the excuse that closing down communities will put the economy at a standstill, but it is clear that the economy will only grow worse if we cannot reduce the number of cases. We’ve tried re-opening without taking the proper precautions (wearing masks) and you see where that has gotten us.

Stacey Abrams, former candidate for the governor of Georgia, calls Gov. Kemp’s lack of action right out racist. Whites, young people, and conservative media viewers have become complacent about Covid-19, believing it is nothing more than the flu and not caring what it is doing to other citizens of this country.

Short of accusing these conservative leaders of right out genocide and ethnic cleansing, I would like to believe they have simply been sucked into Trump’s political narrative. But the thought has not escaped me, and regardless, these leaders are accountable for the lives lost on their watches. In context with the way African Americans and other people of color have been treated in the past, it would not surprise me if some leaders’ motives in this regard are racist, particularly Gov. Kemp who, just a few weeks ago, made another round of unrelenting strides to suppress the black vote.

Within the present Black Lives Matter movement, I have heard the concept on more than one occasion that acts of systemic racism are a canary in the coal mine when evaluating a country’s democracy index. A democracy index evaluates all the countries in the world, and you would think the United States would appear in the top five, but according to The Economist, it doesn’t right now.

The United States has been losing points in its democracy index since the Conservative Tea Party movement began in 2009, and with Trump’s present dereliction of duty, our country appears to be in somewhat of a freefall. It’s actually kind of scary. What factors go into determining a democracy index ranking? Free and fair competitive elections, civil liberties, political participation and a functional government. I would add that within political participation and civil liberties is a free press that factually and effectively informs the public.

Our country, whose Constitution is the gold standard for so many other nations, simply doesn’t practice what it preaches. Liberty and Justice for All means everyone – not just an elite few. It shouldn’t matter whether you own land, if you are male or female, if you are hetero or LGBTQ+, if you have a disability, if you are white or another race, or if you are a first-generation citizen or your family has lived here for centuries. The American Dream should be available to all – not just in theory or ideal, but from a legal stance – the present Constitution indicates this.

So why is it that systemic racism has reduced the freedoms of African Americans for generations? I mean, the Civil War ended in 1865 – more than 150 years ago – but somehow, we resorted to continuing this caste system from the past. The people in charge didn’t want to share their freedoms and insisted on feeling elite.

Have you ever wondered why African Americans and other people of color seem to live more often in the city and are more likely to be poor? If you are white, you may have just accepted that it is simply the way it is. Except that white landowners socially engineered it to be so. When suburbs were first developed after World War II, community planners liked the idea of letting their residents live outside of the city. It meant a man could commute to work each day and leave his wife and children in a serene, friendly environment. But communities like Levittown outside of New York City did not permit blacks and other people of color to move there. It’s not that they couldn’t afford it. Blacks were forced to stay in the inner-city, where they had less access to good schools, safe streets, clean air, open space, not to mention fresh fruits and vegetables. Of course, Jim Crow laws (which were not real laws on the books, I will clarify, at least in most cases) extended discrimination to just about every area of African American lives.

I was very touched by Oprah Winfrey’s 60 Minutes reporting in 2018 about a new memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, called The National Memorial for Peace and Justice that was founded by the Equal Justice Initiative. Its researchers have taken great care to memorialize those for whom records are available who were lynched in the early- to mid-1900s during the Jim Crow laws. Some were documented in local newspapers in photos of picnic-like gatherings of families and children of all ages who would watch such hangings as though they were sporting events.

Now, communities have watched hangings for centuries, even millennia. We hear of brutal public deaths in Shakespeare’s time and during the French Revolution. But what separates American lynchings from these is that they were illegal under the U.S. Constitution, even if the local sheriff oversaw the event. Black men – and women – were killed without due process, without legal representation, and without a trial or jury. A group of people simply thought that they were superior, that they felt like they had the right to control, mock, demoralize and kill another group of people. Entire generations have been impacted by these illegal killings, and the Equal Justice Initiative created this peaceful memorial as a way to begin the healing process.

I was born into a white family and can never know the extent of how systemic racism affects someone’s identity and self-confidence after it has gotten interwoven into generations upon generations of their family, and has influenced what schools they have or have not been able to attend and what livelihoods they have been able to pursue.

I have lived in several places in this country including the South, the Midwest, and the West, and in both rural and urban settings. I know systemic racism is real, and I have always abhorred it. It’s time for us to re-evaluate and give African Americans and other people of color full access to their civil liberties.

I love everything about the movie “Hidden Figures” about three African American women who worked for NASA in 1960s Virginia. I loved learning about these three amazing women who did extraordinary things. Katherine Johnson is a mathematician who calculated flight trajectories for Project Mercury, the first human spaceflight program. Her quick calculations were more accurate than a computer and assured that John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth, got home safely. Dorothy Vaughn was the first African American supervisor at NASA. She not only taught the computer language FORTRAN to other women but helped to preserve their jobs when NASA transitioned from human computers to IBM computers. And Mary Jackson is the first black female to work as an engineer at NASA. She obtained the additional qualifications for the position by obtaining a court order (from a Virginia judge) to permit her to attend night classes at a white college. Jackson also helped to advocate for the hiring and promotion of other women at NASA.

I love the music, the costumes, and the culture portrayed in “Hidden Figures.” The three women portrayed in it have incredible energy, great personalities, and share a unique friendship. Their dry sense of humor, quick wit, and support for each other are qualities we need more of in this country. After seeing the movie for the first time, I was filled with emotion. I felt at a loss somehow, knowing I didn’t have access to this beautiful community of friendship, camaraderie, and never-ending support.

The parallel cultures of whites and blacks have run side by side each other for centuries but have always stayed separate. Black people often have different fashions and like different music. They have different dialects and different creative idioms. They even worship differently than whites. But can you imagine a world where we are permitted to partake of each other’s cultures like brothers and sisters and be the better for it?

I am thrilled to be able to witness the progress happening so quickly through the Black Lives Matter movement. I know we are just scratching the surface right now to curb racist police brutality and to change perceptions and attitudes that existed in the foundations of this country. I am glad we are hearing the complaints of the oppressed and giving them a seat at the table to create solutions. But we are at a crossroads right now, and I fear the very make-up of our nation is on the line if this country cannot repent and heal from its original sin.

The things we have been taking for granted for decades just may be shifting. Now is the time to pay attention to national politics so that we may continue to have Liberty and Justice for All.

Montoya-Galvez, Camilo. “ICE reports first coronavirus cases among detained migrant families with children,” CBS News, June 26, 2020.

Jordan, Miriam. “U.S. Must Release Children From Family Detention Centers, Judge Rules,”  The New York Times, June 26, 2020.

Newkirk, Vann R. “A New EPA Report Shows That Environmental Racism is Real,” The Atlantic, February 28, 2018.

ABC4 Utah. “553 cases of COVID-19 announced in Utah Tuesday, four new deaths.” June 30, 2020.

Godoy, Maria and Daniel Wood. “The Coronavirus Crisis: What do coronavirus racial disparities look like state by state?” NPR, May 30, 2020.

Wooten, Nick. “‘We’ve got to be reasonable.’ Kemp addresses mask mandate challenge in Columbus tour stop,” Ledger-Enquirer, July 1, 2020. https://www.ledger-enquirer.com/news/coronavirus/article243924742.html.

Georgia Department of Public Health. “Daily Status Report,” July 2, 2020. https://dph.georgia.gov/covid-19-daily-status-report

Kekic, Laza and Economist Intelligence Unit. “The Economist Intelligence Unit’s index of democracy. 2007. https://www.economist.com/media/pdf/DEMOCRACY_INDEX_2007_v3.pdf

Winfrey, Oprah. “Inside the Memorial to Victims of Lynching,” 60 Minutes, April 27, 2018.  https://www.cbsnews.com/news/inside-the-memorial-to-victims-of-lynching-60-minutes-oprah-winfrey/

Gigliotti, Donna, Peter Chernin, Jenno Topping, Pharrell Williams and Theodore Melfi. “Hidden Figures,” Fox 2000 Pictures, Chernin Entertainment and Levantine Films. 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5wfrDhgUMGI


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