The long-term systemic consequences of structural racism can be difficult to see, quantify and communicate. But an online tool developed by Jaime Madrigano, an associate professor in the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, aims to do all three.
“Environmental Racism: A Tool for Exploring the Lasting Legacy of Redlining on Urban Environments” allows users to visualize the correlation between 14 contemporary environmental measures and the practice of “redlining” that took place in the 1930s.
Redlining was “a discriminatory practice that denied access to credit to people living in neighborhoods deemed ‘unsafe’ due to the proportion of minority and immigrant populations, poor quality housing stock and other factors”, explains Madrigano, who developed the tool with colleagues at the RAND Corporation. Neighborhoods were classified into one of four categories: Type A (best), Type B (still desirable), Type C (definitely in decline) and Type D (dangerous), with corresponding color codes: green, blue , yellow and red. respectively. The categories were created by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation under the auspices of the federal government. Lending institutions used company codes and similar tools to make lending decisions. As a result, people who lived in “Type D” neighborhoods were denied access to mortgages and other economic opportunities.
“We wanted to move the conversation away from environmental disparities by race or income and focus on the Shares who led them. These were deliberate actions, policies and practices, and they had long-term financial and health consequences.”
Associate Professor, Department of Health and Environmental Engineering
“These practices have had lasting impacts,” Madrigano says. “Some populations didn’t have access to mortgages, so they didn’t have access to homeownership, which is really how most Americans build their personal and intergenerational wealth. These practices have resulted in entrenched poverty and burdens systemic and disproportionate that afflict the same populations over and over again.
The tool allows users to combine a National Archives map depicting one of approximately 200 communities across the United States for which redlining data is available with current environmental risk patterns and amenities such as air pollution. air, green spaces and other environmental measures.
The tool documentation cites literature that links these environmental factors to related health impacts. For example, he cites several studies that show a strong link between exposure to air pollution and reduced life expectancy, as well as respiratory and cardiovascular disease.
Madrigano and his team deliberately included the term “environmental racism” in the title of the tool. She defines the concept as an inequitable distribution of environmental burdens and amenities brought about by deliberate policies and practices, past and present.
“Some people bristle when they hear that term,” Madrigano says. “But we wanted to move the conversation away from environmental disparities by race or income and focus on the Shares who led them. These were deliberate actions, policies and practices, and they had long-term financial and health consequences.”
For Madrigano, the most important takeaway from the tool is that environmental health is closely tied to housing, transportation, infrastructure and planning issues, and she believes tools like hers can help educate users on these connections.
“Environment, sustainability and climate change are holistic issues where multiple sectors and stakeholders need to be at the table,” Madrigano said. “When we talk about environmental health disparities today, we want to think about the deliberate actions that can undo these unjust burdens.”