The link between racial and environmental injustice

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A man holds a sign at the ZeroHour Climate March in Pittsburgh, July 21, 2018. Photo by Mark Dixon (CC BY 2.0).

The killing of George Floyd is the focus of protests around the globe. His last words, “I can’t breathe,” have become a powerful phrase. Communities of color and those living in poverty have also been hit hard by environmental pollution and the COVID-19 pandemic, which targets the lungs.

Warren Olney looks at connections between Black Lives Matter, the coronavirus pandemic, and climate change. He hears from Tamara Toles O’Laughlin, North America Director at, a movement aimed at ending fossil fuels.

Warren Olney: Mattias Lehman, digital director for the Sunrise Movement, said that in this country, environmentalism was separate from racial justice. He said, “It was something for white people who liked big animals.”

Tamara Toles O’Laughlin:Charismatic megafauna. I always joked that my favorite of them are human beings. But if you look at the work of environmental protection, of resource protection, of protection of public and private lands, it often looks like a lone white man standing in the forest trying to determine what the world will look like. And that is not what any environmental work should be striving for. It's not what the imagery should hold. It makes no room for what we've built since then, given that we have lots of folks moving into cities. 

If we have environmental work that speaks to people where they are, [then] water, air and access to health become really distinct concepts, and it feels like a luxury item when it shouldn't.” 

Talk about the urban planning process. For example, New York City was put together with an eye to segregation and keeping African Americans particularly on the other side of the freeway.

Tamara Toles O’Laughlin: “Frederick Law Olmsted and Robert Moses, two of the city’s most famous master planners, look at what they did with their power to carve out from the earth spaces where people will spend time together, build their lives, live and die. 

Frederick Law Olmsted made some choices about communal space and giving people access. He designed Central Park [in Manhattan] and Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Robert Moses ripped up the shorelines, moved highways, and made bridges too low for people to be able to pass. He redesigned cities to separate communities, created the concept of suburbia, and created and deepened the lack of transportation. 

So there was a really malevolent design to keep people separate, to design their lives with or without access to a healthy environment or green space. So it's been really, really incredible to find that in moments like this, when this country is in an unrest over the murder of George Floyd, that it’s not just about the incident that led to his death, but the way that his community was designed. 

Poor design segregates people and subjects them to poor health because they're exposed to transportation-related pollution and air quality issues. And that’s made them more susceptible to COVID. So there's nothing about this moment that we're in that isn't about design.” 

Is this a moment when we can come together and start making changes? 

Tamara Toles O’Laughlin: “I think it's a time for us to start undoing some things. It is a strange moment. We're in the middle of an uprising because people have had enough. We're in a moment where the threads of democracy are bare.

… It's also a good moment to recognize who is making the most of multiple tragedies as well. As oil, coal and gas companies get $50 million in taxpayer money during the pandemic, there are communities full of people by waiting with baited breath to find out [whether] will they get a $1200 check to make them really unlikely to meet any of their needs. 

So I think the American experiment is under review, and the only way forward is for us to figure out what we have to undo. I think [that involves] ripping up some highways, giving people access to good jobs, [building] infrastructure that actually serves our chosen purpose at this moment. And human health is a good way to go. So as we are in this moment, I'm looking at my undo list.

Separately in the podcast, Warren Olney speaks with Tania Chairez, graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and an undocumented  immigrant who was brought to the U.S. at the age of 5.

Warren Olney: Are you anxious while waiting for the Supreme Court decision on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and how do you cope? 

Tania Chairez: “It's not a new feeling for me to have to have to think about — every single morning — what's going to happen tomorrow. Every single week, every Monday, I wake up and just immediately Google ‘Supreme Court DACA decision.’ Did it happen today? Did [it] not happen? That's my ritual every week because it's supposed to come out in June. It's definitely keeping me on the edge of my seat. 

But whatever they decide, I hope that the community and that people who can vote and can call their senators will realize that what we actually need is Congressional change. It's not okay to continue to have undocumented people serving as essential laborers, but not receiving any kind of support from the government, nor having any kind of status.”




Warren Olney


Andrea Brody