UGA study outlines legacy of unfair housing policies exposing Black families to toxins

New research from the University of Georgia demonstrates how unfair housing policies work to endanger the health of Black communities.

The study highlights three cases where Black communities were exposed to environmental pollutants and sickened due to racially-motivated exclusionary housing policies and practices.

These case studies are a clear illustration of structural and environmental racism at work, said SJ Henderson, who led the study as a graduate student at UGA’s College of Public Health.

“Structural racism allows for health inequities to be concentrated in Black communities by legally segregating communities,” said Henderson.

Exclusionary housing policies have a long tradition in the U.S., including the common practice of redlining which denies mortgages to qualifying Black families based on race. Over time, experts have observed reduced access to healthcare, healthy foods, and good schools in Black neighborhoods across the U.S., all of which contribute to higher death and disease rates for Black Americans.

For example, African Americans ages 18 to 49 are twice as likely to die from heart disease than their white counterparts.

In the case of this study, segregated Black communities were also exposed to dangerous environmental hazards that ultimately led to negative health outcomes.

“When the communities in which you live don’t guarantee clean water or clean air for all citizens equally, that’s a major problem,” said co-author Rebecca Wells, a clinical assistant professor with a joint appointment in UGA’s College of Public Health and School of Social Work. “When you are fighting to survive in an inequitable system, these inequities lead to unequal burdens of disease and premature death for Black Americans.”

Henderson and Wells examined literature documenting contaminated wells in Dickinson County, Tennessee; carcinogens emitted from industrial plants in North Birmingham, Alabama; and the lead water crisis in Flint, Michigan.

In all three cases, Black neighborhoods were isolated from health and community resources, and prolonged exposure to environmental toxins led to negative health outcomes including developmental delays, cancer, and death.

“These people were exposed to something environmentally that degraded their mental or physical health, or both,” said Henderson. “I use the term ‘infrastructural violence’ because this is absolutely violence. We think of violence as fighting, killing, or some very gruesome sort of action, but environmental racism is extreme violence.”

This type of violence should concern people just as much as police brutality, she said.

The predominant policy failures in these cases, said Henderson, were delayed response to complaints voiced by Black residents, the intentional spreading of misinformation, weak enforcement of regulations, and inadequate solutions provided by environmental health officials.

The cases also offered examples of how to move forward. Specifically, they illustrate that more transparency and accountability is needed on the part of government officials at the local, state, and federal levels. Connecting with trusted members of Black communities is also key to sharing information.

“When politicians would connect with community leaders, the information was more accessible, [the community] had somebody they trusted talking with them about the issues going on. Being connected with the community is a big thing,” said Henderson.

Wells says if we do not want to repeat the mistakes of our collective past, local communities, states, and our federal government must take the concerns of Black Americans seriously and act to build equitable systems for all.

With so much attention being paid to issues of racial inequality, Henderson hopes that more will finally be done to improve living conditions for Black communities.

“We have to be aware of the damage that’s being done to Black communities as they are living,” said Henderson.

The study, “Environmental racism and the contamination of black lives: A literature review,” was recently published in the Journal of African American Studies.

– Lauren Baggett

Posted on February 3, 2021.