Jacqui Patterson leads the NAACP's environmental justice efforts.
A low-income Navajo family lives in the shadow of a giant coal-fired power plant that contaminates the air the family members breathe. But the family gets no electricity from the plant, only pollution. The electricity gets shipped to distant cities like Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles.
In Louisiana’s Plaquemines Parish, struggling oyster-fishing communities have no “fortified” levees. Five years ago, these communities all flooded when Hurricane Isaac hit. Why hadn’t the Army Corps of Engineers ever fortified their levees? The formula for deciding which communities gain protection rests on property valuations. Areas with lower property values do not qualify.
Climate change connects directly to inequality, notes Jacqui Patterson, the director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program, in so many different ways. And that connection will become even more severe if the Trump administration’s assault on sensible climate policy continues.
Patterson is working to blunt that assault. She’s supporting a surge of promising efforts at the state, local, and community level to advance equitable climate solutions.
At a recent Institute for Policy Studies forum, Patterson shared her extensive knowledge about those grassroots efforts and detailed how climate change and other environmental problems are disproportionately affecting people of color:
All across the United States, Patterson points out, low-income African-American children suffer disproportionately from asthma. They’re much likelier to be hospitalized for asthma attacks or even to die from asthma attacks. These children also often have to miss school on low air-quality days. They encounter more frequent low air-quality days because high emissions of pollutants blanket their neighborhoods.
This environmental degradation often leaves children too sick to learn properly, even on days when they can attend school. And the close proximity of their homes to sources of emissions drives down property values, lowering the property tax base in their communities.
This lower tax base leaves their communities under-resourced and unable to provide struggling children with the support they need to succeed, and that, in turn, sucks children into the “school-to-prison pipeline,” the most common label for the overly harsh disciplinary policies that push low-income students of color into the juvenile justice system.
We need to view climate change and the environment, Patterson stresses, as civil rights issues that deeply intersect with the various inequalities that characterize our society and economy.
In recent months, Patterson’s program at the NAACP has performed a hard-hitting analysis of one of the consequences of our unjust, undemocratic energy system — the disparate incidence of utility shut-offs on poor people of color and the devastating human impact of these shut-offs on some of our most vulnerable.
The NAACP has also brought much-needed attention to a crisis of lead and other contamination affecting East Chicago, Indiana, a low-income community of color. You can read more about this work and how you can get involved.
Basav Sen directs the Climate Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C.