by Lauren V. Williams
The legacy of racial inequality is inextricably intertwined with the effects of climate change in the United States. Chicago, one of the most segregated cities in the country, is a microcosm of this dynamic. Chicago was designed by redlining, the allocation of home loans and investment based on a community’s racial makeup. Although redlining has been outlawed in name, modern city zoning practices replicate its worst effects. Since polluting industries are more likely to be placed in neighborhoods of color, the devastating health impacts of climate change fall disproportionately on minority communities.
Racial covenants and redlining created the segregation in the North that was common practice in the Jim Crow South. Racial covenants were legally enforceable contracts in a deed that prohibited immigrants and Black families from living in white neighborhoods. The segregation created by the covenants was fortified by the rise of redlining in the late 1930s. Redlining was the creation of maps by the federal Home Owners Loan Corporation of the American cities that were color-coded by which of its regions were “creditworthy”. White communities were labeled as the best investments and were colored in green. Predominantly Black communities were labeled as “hazardous” and colored in red. Banks refused to allow the Black residents of these “hazardous” regions to buy or refinance their homes.
Although racial covenants and redlining were outlawed in 1948 and 1968, respectively, the damage of the two practices were far reaching. The inability to buy a home left many families without a major source of wealth. It kept many families in poverty and restricted to housing projects. Financially unstable neighborhoods pushed out shops and grocery stores. Many buildings fell into disrepair, exposing lead paint and mold. The lack of proactive legislation to address these disparities allowed these problems to fester even today. Chicago has the widest racial gap in home ownership out of the ten biggest U.S. cities. In 2018, 74.1% of white households own their home. Only 39.1% of Black households can say the same. A quarter of the Black Chicago population lives in poverty compared to only 7% of white residents. Most telling of all, Chicago is still one of the most segregated cities in the United States.
Although climate change is typically discussed in broad terms, modern redlining practices ensure that the impacts of climate change do not fall equally. Many politicians know that communities of color are less informed and vote less in local politics. Therefore, they discreetly replicate the same ideology used in redlining: the value of white communities should be inflated by beneficial expenditures whereas the value of communities of color should be deflated by hazardous investments. According to a 2018 study by the National Resources Defense Council, polluting industries are more likely to be zoned into communities of color in Chicago. Distribution centers, factories, sewage plants and highways are built in Black and brown neighborhoods. Their residents are therefore continuously exposed to toxins, waste and carbon dioxide. Heat becomes trapped in the pollution and increases the average temperature. In Chicago, historically redlined communities of color are 1.3˚F hotter than average. On the other hand, parks and trees are constructed in white neighborhoods which shield them from rising global temperatures. Therefore, the historically green-colored white communities are 4.6˚F cooler than average. This pattern reappears across the United States. Nationally, historically redlined areas are 5˚F hotter in the summer than non-redlined areas. In some cities like Baltimore, Dallas and New York, this disparity can be as much as 20˚F.
Picture from AptAmigo.
Altgeld Gardens is a public housing complex in Southeast Chicago. This low-income, predominantly black community is surrounded by landfills, factories and sewage plants.
Picture by John Gress, Getty Images.
The consequences of modern redlining created disastrous racial disparities in health. Redlining and city zoning resulted in Black communities filled by dilapidated buildings decaying with mold and lead paint. It drove healthy grocery stores and parks out of the area. It placed dozens of air polluting industries in people’s backyards. All of these factors made these communities more susceptible to asthma, obesity and heart disease. Some redlined neighborhoods have lifespans that are 20 to 30 years shorter than non-redlined neighborhoods in the same city.
Climate change unmasks the distinct exposure African Americans in Chicago have to natural disasters. In 1995, a historic heat wave disproportionately killed more Black Chicagoans than white Chicagoans. Twenty-five years later, maps displaying the death rate from that heat wave by neighborhood coincide with today’s COVID-19 infection, morbidity and mortality rates. African Americans are twice as likely as white residents to die from COVID-19 in Chicago. As climate change continues, scientists expect heat waves and deadly viruses to become a lot more common. If climate change isn’t addressed, the next decades will show how disasters in white communities will become catastrophes in communities of color.
The Biden Administration has committed to tackling racial inequality in every facet of the federal government. Addressing the intersection of climate change and segregation won’t be easy. Short term solutions like planting more trees and parks in Black areas risk exacerbating the situation by gentrifying Black residents out of their neighborhoods. To truly address the problem, Biden must tackle housing policy and climate action in tandem as the first steps to reversing over a century of injustice.
All graphs used above can also be found here.