Air flows through people, cars, trains, trees, animals and air conditioning vents, and the way in which it is metabolised by the city is truly cyborgian. The natural and unnatural are ‘welded together, nature, society and the city’, becoming indistinguishable (Swyndedow, 2006: 21). For instance, air conditioning units ‘deliberately manufacture and condition’ air, processing it to cool down buildings. Yet, this same air at some point has been inhaled, and exhaled by animals, plants and people, making it both natural and, at the same time, man-made. This flow of air, shaped by the city and its many forms of life, goes on to challenge, shift and re-shape the city, being both metabolised and, also metabolising in ‘depressingly geographically uneven’ ways (Swyngedouw, 2006: 21). Again, thinking about air- conditioning, we can watch these uneven power dynamics play out across urban space as ‘wealthy and elite groups insulate themselves,’ in high rise offices and upmarket cars. Their AC units keep these spaces cool and ‘dump their heat, noise and carcinogens onto the relatively impoverished communities nearby’ (Graham, 2015:89).
I want to take a closer look at the relationship between air pollution and race, considering this issue in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic. A recent study in the United States has shown that ‘BIPOC communities live with 66% more air pollution than their white counterparts‘. This impacts health more generally but also plays an important role in determining the ability of individuals to fight Covid-19. Figure 2 shows the distribution of different ethnicities in Los Angeles, above a map of LA air pollution. The demographic breakdown shows that inner city LA is largely made up of black, Asian and Hispanic residents, while the coastline and North West of the city is majority white. The lines I have drawn trace this stark divide. I was shocked to see how sharply they correlated, particularly in the Westwood area, and down along the coast.
This disturbing correlation introduces us to the complicated reality of racial and environmental injustice in the United States. The wealthiest, and often whitest, areas of Los Angeles, are farthest away from the centre of the city. This geographical separation of different groups by reference to their race came about through a process called ‘redlining,’ which refers to a racist practise, where banks would refuse mortgages to customers based on their ethnic origin. For example, historically, Beverly Hills and the Northern outskirts were marked as ‘first grade areas’, and mortgages here were given to white people. These areas are still majority white. Central and East LA were marked as third or fourth grade and so developed greater concentrations of BIOPIC communities. As property ownership is one of the most successful ways of building generational wealth, the legacies of redlining are alive and well today. Homeowners in formerly redlined neighbourhoods, have earned 89% less equity, equivalent to $524,000 today than their green-lined counterparts. Limiting access to land is one of the most widely acknowledged forms of racial capitalism, whereby ‘practices of devaluation become institutionalised’. This devaluation facilitates ‘racial violence in the form of degraded bodies and environments’ (Pulido, 2017: 527). Although not every part of US politics and policy is ‘overtly racist, meta-economic and political processes in the US are saturated with racial meaning and consequences’ (Pulido, 2016: 7), making BIPOC communities far more vulnerable to often illegal levels of pollution.
The adverse health effects of air pollution are well known. It is thought 200,000 people die annually in the United States alone. Air pollution is also linked to an increased death rate from Covid-19. BIPOC were disproportionately infected. Cutting across both the intersections of race and poverty, the inability to work from home, access healthy food and health care, all these factors contribute to the chasm between white and BIPOC infection rates. So, how does this all relate?
Redlining has indelibly scarred the face of LA. ‘Race, property, and proper economic subjectivity were co-produced by the real estate industry in the early 20th century’ (Zaimi, 2020: 1553) tying race and financial security together. As a result of this, often Black communities, in addition to historically marginalised immigrant communities such as Latino and Asian communities, are likely to continue to live today in areas that have seen significantly less investment over the last few decades. Combined with the destruction of the tram system, which we discussed last week, and the heavily reliance on vehicular transport, this has ensured that “unequal power relations [have been] inscribed into the air” (Raymond Byrant, 1998: 86). These outcomes flow ‘unevenly and unjustly’ (Graham, 2015: 203) throughout the city, with deadly consequences. The air we breathe is such a basic fundamental requirement, we might think of it as apolitical. However, it is clearly rationed according to race and income, an innately political product of historical wealth distribution.
Bryant, Raymond L. “Power, Knowledge and Political Ecology in the Third World: A Review.” Progress in Physical Geography 22.1 (1998): 79-94. Web.
Graham, Stephen. “Life Support: The Political Ecology of Urban Air.” City (London, England) 19.2-3 (2015): 192-215. Web. 89
Heynen, Kaika, Swyngedouw, Heynen, Nik, Kaika, Maria, and Swyngedouw, E. In the Nature of Cities : Urban Political Ecology and the Politics of Urban Metabolism / Edited by Nik Heynen, Maria Kaika and Erik Swyngedouw. London: Routledge, 2006. Print. Questioning Cities Ser.
Los Angeles Times. 2020. [online] Available at: <http://graphics.latimes.com/responsivemap-pollution-burdens/(opens%20in%20a%20new%20tab)> [Accessed 29 October 2020].
Love, F., 2021. The Most Sobering Thing about the Racial Dot Map. [online] Love, Joy, Feminism. Available at: <https://www.patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism/2018/12/the-most-sobering-thing-about-the-racial-dot-map.html> [Accessed 29 January 2020].
Nytimes.com. 2020. The Fullest Look Yet at the Racial Inequity of Coronavirus. [online] Available at: <https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/07/05/us/coronavirus-latinos-african-americans-cdc-data.html> [Accessed 29 October 2020].
Pudloski, K., 2020. Homeowners in formerly redlined LA neighborhoods have $524,000 less home equity. [online] Livabl. Available at: <https://www.livabl.com/2020/06/formerly-redlined-la-neighborhoods-equity.html> [Accessed 20 October 2020].
Pulido, Laura. “Flint, Environmental Racism, and Racial Capitalism.” Capitalism, Nature, Socialism 27.3 (2016): 1-16. Web.
Pulido, Laura. “Geographies of Race and Ethnicity II.” Progress in Human Geography 41.4 (2017): 524-33.
The Guardian. Holden, E., 2019. Tens of thousands of deaths linked to weak US air pollution rules – study. [online] Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/nov/20/us-air-pollution-deaths-study-jama#:~:text=host%20of%20illnesses.-,About%20200%2C000%20Americans%20are%20thought%20to%20die%20from%20air%20pollution,levels%20in%20their%20zip%20codes.> [Accessed 29 October 2020].
The Guardian. 2020. People of color live with 66% more air pollution, US study finds. [online] Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jun/27/us-air-pollution-north-east-mid-atlantic-analysis-union-concerned-scientists> [Accessed 10 October 2020].
Zaimi, Rea. “Making Real Estate Markets: The Co‐Production of Race and Property Value in Early 20th Century Appraisal Science.” Antipode 52.5 (2020): 1539-559. Web.