Recent research in the US has shown that, in simple terms, white people breathe better quality air than black people. When written as bluntly as that it sounds like a joke, almost like the kind of headline you would read in The Onion. But it’s actually a perfectly serious phenomena – areas of the US where the population are predominantly white consistently have better air quality than in areas that are mostly black. Considering the effects of air quality on our day-to-day life and on our life expectancy, this discovery has a lot of potential implications.
These findings are being painted as a racial issue, and of course they are to some extent. But they also take in an element of our lives that the media doesn’t often like to talk about – that of class. These results could very easily be written out in a different way from how they have if the emphasis were changed – we could then say that poor people tend to breathe worse air than rich people, and it just so happens that more black people are poor than white people.
From there we would have to explore the many reasons why black people are over-represented in the poverty statistics of America, but to begin with we can also ask why poor people of any color are suffering from bad air quality in comparison to the rich. The reason is a concept more familiar to academic geographers than newspaper writers – that of spatial segregation. The rich of America are, almost always, spatially separated from the poor to a very high degree. If we look at a map of any major city in America, we can identify areas in which the rich live, and areas in which the poor live – and if we were to visit those areas we would clearly see the difference in the built environment and the quality of the air.
Areas where the poor live have lower tax incomes; they are less likely to be able to afford services and amenities that might help deal with air pollution, such as parks and hospitals; they are given much less consideration in city planning meetings, meaning the majority of major freeways in the US go through the poor areas of towns; and due to high rates of unemployment and marginalization, they find themselves desperate to accept the possibility of jobs from polluting industries that richer areas have the choice and power to turn away – hence why the vast majority of factories, manufacturing depots, and wastegrounds in America are found in poor areas.
Once this kind of cycle has been started it becomes hard to stop – real estate prices go down because of the poor quality of the environment, and as prices go up in other areas of town more poor and unemployed people are pushed into the zone. The fact that the majority of these poor people are also black is yet another scandal to be added on top of this. The whole thing seems to show that while the free-market dream of America works very well for the winners, it produces far too many losers, and far too negative effects on those losers.
And yet it is beginning to seem that things will have to get much worse before they begin to improve. Levels of inequality in the US have been increasing for some time now, after they were reset to a certain extent by the prosperity of the 20th century. Now the US is becoming dominated by corporate power and the interests of the rich again, much as it was back in the 19th century. The issue of air quality and the spatial segregation that causes it is but one symptom of that – and it is a symptom that should alert us to the need for urgent change if we are to start equalizing the relationships between the winners and losers in American capitalism again.
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