Too many Americans live in ‘sacrifice zones.’ Let’s fix that.
Coronavirus transmission rates may be down in New York City, but in the Bronx, my community is still facing the effects of three pandemics: COVID-19, white supremacy, and climate injustice. My Black and Latinx neighbors are at least three times more likely to die than white New Yorkers, and those deaths are directly correlated to underlying diseases that are a byproduct of climate injustice: lung disease, asthma, diabetes, and heart disease. Black and brown people also make up the majority of underpaid essential workers who literally cannot afford to stay at home.
The term “sacrifice zones” — communities that have been permanently impaired by environmental damage or economic disinvestment — takes on an even darker meaning during the pandemic. These are communities where air pollution, waste, and food deserts (along with food swamps) are common. They are on the frontlines of both climate change and the pandemic. And the connector is racism.
COVID-19 has laid bare the human costs of racial and environmental injustice. Regardless of wealth, communities of color, and especially Black communities, are more exposed to air pollution than white communities — which creates conditions that increase the likelihood of complications and death from COVID-19. It is no surprise that the virus hit the Bronx the hardest; we have higher rates of childhood asthma and complications than anywhere in the country.
To fight COVID effectively, we need to address sacrifice zones. That means building a regenerative economy that values life in all of its forms. Otherwise, we will continue to see the sanctioning of Black death and suffering.
Communities across the country are already enacting groundbreaking climate justice policies. Here’s how the rest of us can follow their lead:
1. Give communities control of land
Black and brown people have been pushed out of their ancestral homes and into sacrifice zones due to gentrification, tenant exploitation, and racist lending practices. Cities like Santa Ana, California, have successfully organized to create and invest in community land trusts where residents have control over what and who develops on the land. This March, residents won approval to create a community microfarm.
2. Make water a human right
States and cities must transfer water utilities from private to public control, and provide clean and free water service. In Pittsburgh, a coalition is pressuring the state to keep the utility entirely publicly owned as it embarks on a $4 billion infrastructure upgrade, and for the public works project to create green jobs and job training.
3. Invest in democratically controlled energy
States and cities must divert funds from harmful investments — like employee pension plans that invest in fossil fuels — to just and equitable energy programs. In Boston, a coalition is securing government funding to build community-led, community-owned microgrids that bring clean, affordable energy to a mostly Latinx and low-income community.
4. Enact an Essential Workers Bill of Rights
The pandemic has proven that providing care — childcare, eldercare, and teaching children — are vital to our communities. It’s time we protect all workers. In New York City, organizers and workers are calling for an Essential Workers Bill of Rights, which provides benefits like hazard pay, paid sick and family leave, and childcare and healthcare coverage, as well as holding employers accountable for worker protections.
5. Build more affordable green housing
Many are at risk of eviction due to the pandemic. States and cities must invest in climate-resilient, healthy, and affordable social housing, which is a more permanent and affordable solution than providing temporary relief through shelters. We should look to Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA) policies that require landlords to offer to sell to building tenants. In addition, all public housing should be retrofitted to be energy efficient, and private landlords should be mandated to do the same.
6. Pave the way for clean transportation
Sacrifice zones are often sites of sprawling highways and truck routes, which spew dirty and harmful diesel exhaust into communities. Public transit should run on renewable energy and offer affordable rates, and corporations that use truck fleets to transport goods and are routed through BIPOC communities should be required to run on clean fuel. Thanks to the hard work of community advocates, in June California passed a first-of-its-kind Advanced Clean Truck rule that will increase the number of zero-emission trucks in the state.
* * *
Our greatest hope for long-term recovery is creating a sustainable future that is both equitable and just. We must seize the opportunity to pass transformational policies that center people, the earth, and social equity. This is how we will ease the impact of the pandemic and build frontline communities’ resiliency: honoring people’s right to clean air, land, water, and a dignified life.