This blog post is based on my testimony before the New York City Racial Justice Commission, which it tasked with dismantling structural racism in the city’s charter.
This November, New York voters will decide whether to enshrine an explicit environmental right in their state constitution. If adopted, the new section will read, “Every person shall have a right to clean air and water, and a healthful environment.” New York would join several other states, as well as the United Nations and roughly 150 countries across the globe, in recognizing a fundamental human right to breathe clean air and drink clean water.
We all deserve to live in healthy communities. Yet, the grim reality is that Black communities, communities of color, and low-income communities frequently have to fight tooth-and-nail for these basic human rights. This situation is neither accidental nor inevitable. New York City is a clear example.
The city’s racial segregation was carefully planned. This link takes you to a map of the New York City neighborhoods that were redlined nearly a century ago. It is a map of structural racism — of the deliberate racialized decision to cut Black and brown neighborhoods out of the New Deal and the economic prosperity it built.
Now look at where New York City sited its power plants, where the city sited its wastewater treatment plants, where the waste transfer stations are located, and where polluting industry is located more generally. It’s the same map. This is the map of New York City’s environmental racism.
The structural racism of redlining has been compounded by a city that ignored the needs and priorities of its frontline communities. It is also the map of the neighborhoods burdened by over-policing and mass incarceration.
Now take this map of structural and environmental racism. Add to it the places with few green spaces or street trees, the places where environmental enforcement is lax, the places where kids struggle with asthma and miss too much school because they are sick, the places with disproportionate cardiopulmonary disease burden, the places most vulnerable to the city’s heat island effect, and the places where COVID-19 hit first and hardest.
Once again it is largely the same map. This is the map of New York City’s environmental injustice — the impacts that polluting industry and lack of environmental enforcement have on the health and welfare of its most vulnerable residents.
New York State's environmental amendment would be one of a multitude of transformative legal initiatives that could begin to address the crisis of environmental injustice. In 2019, the State of New York passed the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which places special emphasis on overburdened communities. The New York City Racial Justice Commission is about to propose amendments to the city's charter, and the Environmental Justice Interagency Work Group is currently producing the Environmental Justice For All Report required by the city's 2017 Environmental Justice Ordinances.
With all these converging legal initiatives, New York City has an historic opportunity to end its legacy of structural environmental racism and to help residents and communities move toward environmental justice. Here are five suggestions for how to make that happen.
A new way of doing things is possible if we dare to imagine it, and it could serve as a model for cities across the country.