It doesn’t require much thought to have a general understanding that the South was built on hundreds of years of racist practices. From racism in government, the arts, and education (the list goes on), it tends to be the backbone of states’ infrastructure across the Southern region. What requires a bit more thought is how racist environmental practices are at the end of a metaphorical string that ties all of these aspects together.
As defined by Princeton University, environmental racism is “unequal access to a clean environment and basic environmental resources based on race.” For decades, communities of color across the United States have been disproportionately harmed by a long list of environmental hazards. Through inequitable policy and outright discrimination, communities of color have been forced to reside in close proximity to polluted water systems, landfills, major intersections, roadways, sewage systems, and other methods of transportation that emit airborne pollution. Environmental racism can also be seen in less direct ways, such as schools often being in poor condition and built using asbestos (a carcinogenic mineral that can cause dangerous lung conditions), when the school’s demographics are predominantly Black and brown children. Being in these types of environments over time is harmful, and statistics have shown these communities are at greater risk of having serious health concerns.
Like other types of racism, environmental racism is deeply rooted in history. Communities that suffer at the hand of these policies are trapped for decades, bringing on hundreds of years of discrimination along with a long list of health conditions as a result. Why are white, upper- class families found in safe neighborhoods with clean air and water, frequent green space, and flamboyant vegetation, whereas people of color and lower-class families are found next to factories, sewage dumps, and interstates? Environmental racism isn’t a coincidence — it’s in our policies, our history, and an effect of decades of discriminatory practices. Environmental racism is a choice.
Redlining is a specific type of environmental racism in which housing is denied to applicants in neighborhoods that have been pre-identified as “hazardous” to investors. Let’s zoom in to one of the most famous cities in the South, Atlanta, and set the clock to the mid-1930s, during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s time in office. Often recognized as Roosevelt’s most successful project, the New Deal helped popularize the idea of redlining and brought generations of consequences to Atlanta’s Black and brown communities.
The New Deal created homeownership programs that helped stop the millions of mortgage holders who lost their homes during the Great Depression from becoming homeless. The plan created the Homeowners’ Loan Corporation and the Federal Housing Administration, which helped millions of Americans to receive loans for home ownership across the United States. But this was the 1930s; the Civil Rights Movement was brewing, as was the peak of stringent racism across the country. This created the tendency of the FHA to discourage banks from investing loans in buyers near racially mixed neighborhoods, according to the Unvarnished project. A 1935 FHA manual instructed underwriters: “if a neighborhood is to retain stability properties must continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes.”
Later that year, the HOLC began to identify “high-risk” and “low-risk” neighborhoods across over 200 cities, the New York Times reported, with majority Black neighborhoods generally deemed “high-risk.” Those neighborhoods recognized as high-risk were shown in red, and the practice was eventually termed “redlining.” Those who resided in redlined neighborhoods were rarely given insured mortgages, creating a stagnant difference in neighborhoods of Black and brown communities. The maps were never publicized, as they were to be kept behind closed doors by the federal government. Nonetheless, in the late 1970s, a historian named Kenneth Jackson discovered one of these redlining maps created for St. Louis. He described the redlined neighborhoods as being those which had older homes, lower home values, and were in close distance to industrial regions. The most important feature, though, that he discovered, was the tendency of redlined areas to be those where Black residents resided.
Now let’s jump back to Atlanta. The map below, created by Layla Bellows of the Atlanta Regional Commission based on ESRI’s “Living Atlas of the World Data,” outlines neighborhoods HOLC deemed best, acceptable, and uninsurable. Green represents “best,” blue is “acceptable,” yellow is “declining,” and red is “hazardous.” The map also outlines general demographics, with the color orange representing Not Hispanic, White alone individuals and pink representing Not-Hispanic, Black alone, individuals. As we can immediately identify upon looking at the map, those areas marked as “best” and “acceptable” according to the HOLC are in predominantly White neighborhoods; those marked “declining” and “hazardous” are predominantly Black neighborhoods.
Bellows also provided a similar map that outlines the similarities between unemployment rates and HOLC descriptions. The map below depicts neighborhoods with high unemployment in the colors dark blue and bright teal, while the neighborhoods with low unemployment are highlighted as a lighter teal and pale green. The HOLC colors remain the same. Here, we can see, yet again, an undeniable similarity between high unemployment neighborhoods being seen as “uninsurable.”
Atlanta was proudly a part of the Jim Crow South in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, enforcing racial segregation and creating means to continue segregation even after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which forced the desegregation of public and private facilities. Georgia’s government, along with those of states across the South, constantly relied on infrastructure to create more physical divides between white and Black communities, which is obvious when we look at redlined districts.
With redlining, not only did communities suffer economically, but the environmental hazards became even more consequential to health concerns — something especially prominent in Atlanta today.
A study done by the University of Michigan identified that those living in redlined neighborhoods can have shortened life spans, reaching up to 30 years less than those living in non-redlined districts. Here in Atlanta, a study conducted by Professor Josh Apte at the University of California, Berkeley, identified nitrogen dioxide pollution in redlined neighborhoods as almost twice as high as those in non-redlined neighborhoods. Nitrogen dioxide pollution is a result of vehicle emissions and directly leads to lung conditions. Apte broke down that this initial redlining discrimination against people of color eventually developed a trend: because these communities were in close proximity to pollutants and polluted industrial centers, it became easier for similar centers to develop in the same region, causing pollution levels to increase even more over time. Our past infrastructure decisions are perpetually causing a public health crisis among Black communities across Atlanta — and we’re failing to care.
Those same communities have less vegetation and tree coverage, adding to the issue of heat absorption: these areas of the city are reaching temperatures much higher than any others. Heat waves aren’t distributed equally and aren’t a matter of fate; there is a direct correlation between warmer areas and poorer regions as those regions with less green space openly provide for hotter temperatures to thrive. And where are the regions with less green space? Often where poorer communities, and more people of color, call their home. These high heat conditions have everlasting health concerns. UrbanHeatATL, a collaborative effort between Spelman College and other urban climate activist groups, has been working to map the correlation between extreme heat risk, historical racism, and environmental injustice. But we can’t just rely on nonprofit organizations to help combat the impending public health and environmental crises.
Policy is at the core of our community efforts, and if enforced enough, is proven to be successful. Policymakers can work towards decreasing the damage redlining has caused in Atlanta since the early 20th century and reinvest funds in areas that were historically discriminated against and prohibit housing discrimination in the future.