Blacks Under Attack: Police, Prisons, and Pollution

by Gerald Hankerson

After 33 years incarcerated, in a state that doesn’t permit parole, Waldo Waldron-Ramsey, was released from Stafford Creek Corrections Center in March and dropped off at a bus stop without a jacket to keep him warm.

One of the few resources the Department of Corrections handed him, besides a bus ticket, was an inhaler to treat his asthma, a disease that disproportionately impacts communities of color.

“After more than three decades in prison, I had forgotten what car exhaust and freshly cut grass from lawn mowers smelled like,” Waldron-Ramsey said. “I had no idea that the planes and trains constantly traveling through our neighborhoods were poisoning the very air we are breathing.”

Black communities suffer the brunt of two egregious racial inequities designed to cause more harm than good in our community. Environmental factors that contribute to racial inequities in both environmental justice and criminal justice, particularly in black communities, are operating parallel to each other: neglected neighborhoods and infrastructure position communities to suffer the negative consequences of pollution and an unequal justice system.

This is not news to people color. We are more likely to suffer from racial disparities in all racially-biased systems, especially when it comes to our health. The same inequities that cause environmental injustice cause the disparities we see across our community. 

According to a February EPA report, people of color are 35 percent more likely to live near facilities that emit toxic pollutants. Because of these disparities, people of color suffer a much higher rate of respiratory problems, like asthma and lung disease. To bring the point closer to home, according to a National Equity Atlas report black people, Latino folks, and API communities here in Tacoma and across the South Sound breathe in far more toxic air than white people.

The disparities we see in health outcomes for people of color are echoed in the disparities we see in mass incarceration. Approximately 4 percent of the state population is black, and yet shockingly, approximately 18 percent of the state’s prison population is black.

The defeat of institutional racism in the criminal justice system and in environmental policy will only come about once people of color are equal partners with a seat at the table creating new policies.

This is exactly why I support I-1631, this ballot initiative centers the needs of the communities most impacted by pollution and climate change and was built in partnership with these communities.

This initiative will invest in clean energy like wind and solar, healthy forests, and clean water across the state. It will clean our air and build new good-paying jobs by charging a pollution fee on the state’s biggest corporate polluters. 35 percent of these investments must provide direct and meaningful benefits to the state’s most impacted communities and at least 10 percent of the projects must be located in the community. Plus a minimum of 15 percent of funds will be directed toward low-income communities to help them transition into a clean energy economy.

What does this look like? Energy efficiency retrofitting for low-income housing. New family wage jobs building cleaner infrastructure. More and better transportation options. Less pollution and cleaner air in our neighborhoods.

Communities of color must be front and center in solutions to injustice. This initiative has a strong coalition ready to do just that. Together with labor unions, environmental organizations, health advocates, and faith groups, leading community of color organizations are ready to put this initiative on the ballot in 2018. This is an incredible opportunity to unraveling the injustice system that pollutes our neighborhoods. And it can be a model for how we dismantle the other systems of oppression we experience every day.

Gerald Hankerson is the President of the King County/ Seattle NAACP