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Environmental Justice Requires a Healthy Democracy

Jan. 20, 2022, 9:00 AM

In our quest for voting rights, we are not just fighting to be heard, we’re fighting for our lives. Whether it’s the Freedom to Vote Act or the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, our leaders have been rightly focused on state laws aimed at rolling back recent gains in access to the ballot box. What’s been overlooked is how a healthy democracy is essential for healthy communities of people and wildlife alike.

When states are allowed to limit who can participate in choosing our elected officials, they are perpetuating the inequities that have left communities of color and low-income communities at significantly higher risk of devastating health conditions such as lung and heart disease, asthma, diabetes, lead poisoning, and exposure to harmful chemicals and toxic substances such as PFAS.

For example, more than 100,000 people in the U.S. die each year due to air pollution—with Black and Latinx communities suffering a disproportionate number of these deaths—far higher than deaths from gun violence. And Black Americans are far more likely than their White peers to live near or next to oil and gas wells and other industrial facilities that release deadly carcinogens like benzene and formaldehyde into the air.

These and other sources of pollution are only exacerbating the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic’s disproportionate impact on frontline and fenceline communities. When we say, “I can’t breathe,” we literally can’t breathe.

These environmental injustices are caused by a political system that has consistently made it harder or even illegal for Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and other communities of color to vote.

Systematic Exclusion from Democracy

Since the end of Reconstruction, Black voters and other people of color have been systematically excluded from our democracy. Whether by horrific lynchings and other brutal acts of terrorism perpetrated on Black Americans, or insidious and pervasive Jim Crow laws, or efforts today to toss out election results from primarily Black communities and communities of color, the methods, discrimination and exclusion have often changed but their goals have remained constant and consistent for generations.

We have seen brief instances of lawmakers rallying around reforms, from the 15th Amendment to the 1965 Voting Rights Act, only for later leaders to retrench and roll back this progress. In the interim, decision-makers in our incomplete democracy have turned a blind eye to how their decisions have left the least represented—Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian American, and other marginalized communities—exposed to pollution and climate impacts.

We need to start addressing this problem by passing the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. After all, a healthy democracy is essential to ensure people and wildlife alike go from surviving to thriving.

Video: The Biden Administration has pledged to make environmental justice a priority. Here’s a look at the limited legal options impacted communities have to combat negative environmental impacts.

Environmental Justice, Conservation Are Linked

Wildlife conservation and environmental justice may seem disconnected, but they complement one another: When people have access to clean air and clean drinking water, so do wildlife.

When we make communities more resilient to climate change and natural disasters, the wildlife we live alongside also are safer. And when we ensure hunters, anglers, hikers, and other outdoor recreationists have safe access to the outdoors, we inspire and empower new generations of wildlife advocates.

The only way to create truly durable victories for people and wildlife alike is to strengthen our democracy and ensure everyone has safe and equal access to the ballot box.

The right to vote and participate in our democracy is essential to lifting up all communities and ensuring that decision-makers, from the halls of Congress to city councils, do not leave anyone behind. The opportunities are immense, including ensuring a 21st century Civilian Climate Corps and other clean energy and manufacturing jobs programs invest in the communities that need them the most.

It’s true, the past is prologue—and unless our leaders muster the courage to find a way forward on the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, we will never address the environmental and health disparities keeping a significant number of our fellow Americans from even having a shot at success.

This article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., the publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.

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Author Information

Mustafa Santiago Ali (Ph.D.), is vice president for Environmental Justice, Climate and Community Revitalization at the National Wildlife Federation. He served as assistant associate administrator in the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice for more than two decades.