The phrase “environmental racism” was coined to draw attention to the ways in which exposure to environmental toxins like air pollution and lead is not even across cities and states, but tends to be higher in low income neighborhoods — especially those that are disproportionately Black and Latino — ones that are also more likely than others to be home to garbage dumps, sewage treatment plants, and power plants. As a result, poor children and children of color are more likely to suffer the consequences of environmental pollution, like asthma and lead poisoning.
Prevention efforts, however, tend to focus on parents’ responsibility for protecting their children from these threats instead of the state or city’s failure to keep all neighborhoods equally safe. For example, even though it’s illegal for landlords to rent out a house or apartment with lead paint, poisoning prevention efforts tend to focus on educating parents. I thought of this tendency to blame the victim when I noticed a set of billboards going up in my neighborhood in Los Angeles, Highland Park. Meant to encourage parents not to smoke, they read (in English and in Spanish): “I gave you love, you gave me asthma.”
Highland Park is a low-income neighborhood. And given what we know about the inclination for cities to tolerate environmentally harmful conditions in low income neighborhoods, this seems to me a particularly nasty message to send. It erases the role of the city in protecting children and places 100% of the blame on parents (“you gave me asthma”), and then it twists the knife (“I gave you love”). Even if they are smokers, poor parents can only do so much to protect their children from things that the city is all-to-comfortable letting slide.Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.