What is Environmental Racism?

Timothy L. Coyle
Consultant specializing in housing issues

What is “environmental racism”?  I haven’t a clue and apparently neither does the senior Newsom Administration official who after suggesting polluters were committing it retracted her assertion.  Even before the ink was dry the official removed her accusation from the Twitter blast that contained it.

Indeed, Mary Nichols, Chairman of the California Air Resources Board (CARB) – the bloated state bureaucracy looking over the shoulders of individuals and companies to see how much carbon they’re emitting – withdrew her tweet after likening the brutality behind George Floyd’s tragic death in Minneapolis to compliance with air quality in California. 

Nichols said in the recent tweet that Lloyd’s “I can’t breathe” exclamation – while he lay helplessly under the knee of an arresting Minneapolis police officer – was the equivalent of the struggle for clean air.  “Environmental racism is just one form of racism,” she said without explaining herself.  

Several Democrat lawmakers were offended by what Nichols said and immediately returned fire.  “How dare you talk about Enviro (sic) racism when historically your policies favor your coastal elitist friends,” exclaimed Assembly Member Jim Cooper (D-Elk Grove).  In an interview later Cooper said “. . . unfortunately during her time as the chairwoman of the CARB, she’s only looked out for . . . and listened to, the wealthy, liberal areas of the state.”

“If she had compared it to the Holocaust maybe then you would be as disgusted by the comment as I was,” said Assembly Member Autumn Burke of Marina Del Rey.  “Get it straight,” she urged “our black males have been systematically killed for generations. These tweets (of Nichols and later, Malibu Senator Henry Stern) are tone deaf and I expected more from my colleagues.”

The battle between lawmakers and Nichols has deeper roots than this latest skirmish would suggest.  Last year, Southland legislators criticized CARB for practicing “implicit bias” in treating an environmental waiver for a Los Angeles-based sports arena differently than they did a similar request for development of a Bay Area sports facility made to the regulatory body years earlier. 

But, back to the issue at hand:  environmental racism. Presumably it means that minorities – who make up the bulk of the poor – suffer more than whites from carbon emissions due to automobile travel and industrial pollution in largely urban neighborhoods.  Environmentalists, for example, point to the high rate of asthma victims in downtown precincts. 

If that’s the case, how come the push for more high-density, urban housing – in those same neighborhoods?  And, shouldn’t policy-makers now address the environmental imperative of densifying urbanscapes after medical experts have warned us of the danger of getting too close to one another?   

Doctors and other health officials say minimum exposure – for more than 20 minutes – to a person carrying the COVID-19 virus almost certainly guarantees an infection.  Tell that to the person riding the (hopefully crowded) rapid-transit vehicle next to you.  Try asking him or her to move out of your space. 

Noting these realities, what direction should urban development take – to avoid the cloud of racism?  Isn’t it Gospel that environmentalist advocate for infill housing – and only infill housing?  Most activists say if it isn’t built downtown then it’s got to be sprawl.  And, sprawl is, of course, a bad thing.  But, isn’t living in close quarters now dangerous? 

How does needed construction of all sorts of housing overcome these sentiments?  Plus, as much as they may want it, how do environmentalists, local officials and state lawmakers and policy makers reconcile the use of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) by dozens of neighborhood groups to systematically reject new, multifamily housing?  Infill housing?  By the way, is it not racist to be a NIMBY (Not in My Backyard)?  

Maybe Ms. Nichols, an ardent environmental enthusiast, ought to rethink her name-calling and start listening to those who live outside her favored knee-jerk, liberal salons where the policy conflicts arise and where ridiculous slogans like “environmental racism” are hatched.  

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