Environmental Racism

by: Alex Kirchner


As global temperatures rise and industry continues to pollute the air and water supplies around the country, many have come to consider Chicago a safe haven from climate change. With its vast supply of fresh water from Lake Michigan and distance from the threat of rising sea levels, some climate scientists consider it one of the best locations in the country to ride out climate crisis. Add to that Chicago’s vast network of public parks and rooftop gardens that aid in purifying the air, plus a massive newly built tunnel and quarry to manage floodwaters, and it would seem that the city is a paradise (Chicago Magazine, 2018). However, this paradise is far from reality for Chicago’s poorest residents; in fact, Chicago’s vast disparity in climate effects is one of the clearest examples of environmental racism in the country.

The nonprofit advocacy organization Green Action describes environmental racism as, “the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color.” There are countless high profile examples of people of color and those living in poverty suffering the worst of large scale natural disasters like Hurricanes Katrina or Maria, but day to day life can also present challenges. In a report from March 2019, The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America found that residents of majority Hispanic and Black areas of Chicago on the Southwest side experienced disproportionately poor air quality caused largely by the increasing shift of polluting industries like trucking to these neighborhoods (WBEZ Morning Shift, March 13, 2019). As a result, Little Village and South Lawndale experience a higher incidence of respiratory conditions like COPD and asthma than elsewhere in the city. Meanwhile, state government has been slow to stop many of the biggest polluters, including Medline, which has been clogging suburbs near Chicago with Ethylene Oxide (The Intercept, 2019). In other cases, the city has outright has authorized further development of diesel-fueled industries in already hard-hit areas like Little Village (Better Government Association, 2018).

Poor air quality is not the only environmental problem plaguing Chicago. Flooding has been an occasional issue in Chicago for decades, and many Chicagoans remember the great flood of 1992 caused by construction crews puncturing unused freight tunnels under the river. However, as global temperatures rise and rainfall has increased across the country, flooding has become a consistent threat. According to the Chicago Tribune, “while the United States has seen annual precipitation climb 4 percent between 1901 and 2015, Great Lakes states have experienced a 10 percent rise over this same period” (March 2019). While this has impacted trendy downtown locations like the Riverwalk as well as more residential areas throughout the city, one of the hardest-hit locations is the majority middle-class Black neighborhood of Chatham on the South Side.

Since 2013, Chatham has been an epicenter of flooding in Chicago, causing many residents and businesses to flee the neighborhood. Property values have dropped between 10-25% due to basement flooding, which not only causes damage to foundations and drywall, but can leave behind rampant mold growth and wastewater contamination. Residents who have chosen to stay are often relegated to the first or even second floors of their property. North Lawndale, another primarily Black community with a higher poverty rate, has also experienced significant flooding (Chicago Magazine, 2018). Because so much of the city is covered in hardscape like cement and asphalt, the increasing volume of rainwater has few places to run but into residents’ basements.

The city government of Chicago has made some attempts to deal with environmental problems in Chicago, including creating a series of parks in North Lawndale with drainage-promoting landscapes and reducing emission on the CTA. However, the continued promotion of pollutant industries like trucking in minority neighborhoods and continued prioritization of flashy, tourist-oriented infrastructure projects like the Riverwalk over large scale flood reduction measures, demonstrates the racism still evident in the city’s policies. In the age of global warming, it’s the South and West sides that are really feeling the heat.