Air pollution exposure in the US: Systemic racism, not income, drives disparities

smoke coming out of a furnace
New research highlights the role of systemic racism in the uneven effects of air pollution in the United States. Marcos Osorio/Stocksy
  • Research has linked air pollution to a range of medical conditions.
  • In the United States, racially minoritized groups are exposed to more air pollution than are white Americans.
  • A new study finds for the first time that race and ethnicity are a more significant factor in exposure to air pollution than income level in the U.S.

Researchers have suggestedTrusted Source that economic disparity is the reason America’s racially and ethnically minoritized groups are exposed to disproportionately high levels of air pollution. A new study from researchers at the University of Washington suggests otherwise.

The study finds that, regardless of income, racially and ethnically minoritized groups are the people most exposed to pollutants across the U.S.

Studies have linked air pollution to respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, cancercognitive decline, and other conditions, as well as adverse birth outcomes. The Global Burden of Disease study estimates that globally, 4.5 million people died prematurely from outdoor air pollution in 2019 alone.

“Air pollution and its associated health impacts are not equitably distributed by race/ethnicity or income,” write the authors of the study.

Says first author and doctoral candidate Jiawen Liu, “There have been so many improvements. But we still see these disparities persist, even after two decades.”

The study appears in the journalEnvironmental Health Perspectives.Trusted Source

What is different about this study

“This is the first time anyone has looked comprehensively at all these main pollutants and watched how they vary over time and space,” says the study’s senior study author, Dr. Julian Marshall.

“This paper,” he suggests, “is a chance to recognize that, while every community is unique, there are some factors that play out over and over again consistently across our country. If we go state by state, there’s no place where there are no environmental justice concerns.”

The study tracked exposure to five types of air pollution known to have negative impacts on human health:

  • Carbon monoxide (CO): Produced by fuel-burning sources such as cars, trucks, residential heaters and stoves, and construction and farming equipment.
  • Nitrogen dioxide (NO2): This comes from the same sources as CO.
  • Ozone (O3): This ground-level pollutant, Liu explained to Medical News Today, is “not emitted directly to air, but from chemical reactions between oxides of nitrogen and volatile organic compounds.”
  • Particulate matter: The study tracked two sizes of particulate matter, 10 micrometers (PM10) and 2.5 micrometers (PM2.5). Both come from cars, trucks, wood stoves, fireplaces, and dust blown from agriculture, roadways, and construction.
  • Sulfur dioxide (SO2): Produced primarily by the burning of fossil fuels by industry and power plants, and also by vehicles, trains, and ships that burn fuel with high sulfur content, volcanos, and the process of extracting metal from ore.

The study did not include one additional known air pollutant, Liu told Medical News Today:

“We didn’t include lead since it had a dramatic improvement [— decreasing by approximately 98% over time —] after lead removal from gasoline. It [is] less of a problem nowadays.”

The researchers aligned pollution data for 1990, 2000, and 2010 with nationwide population statistics collected in those years. 2010 is the last census year for which complete available air pollution data exists.

Their analysis separated populations by race/ethnicity, income, and location in all contiguous U.S. states and Washington, D.C., as well as for rural versus urban environments. They tabulated national average and local exposures.

The authors write, “In 2010, the disparity between the racial/ethnic group with the highest [versus] lowest national-average exposure was largest for NO2, smallest for O3.”

Professor K. Max Zhang of Cornell University — who was not involved in the study — told Medical News Today, “This finding is not surprising but has interesting implications.”

Specifically, he said:

“The high disparity for NO2 implies that racial/ethnic minority populations are disproportionately exposed to near-source air pollution, which has been well-documented in the literature and identified as a major environmental justice issue. The low disparity for O3 is due to its regional nature. For example, the highest O3 concentrations in the New York City Metropolitan areas usually occur in Connecticut, downwind of New York City.”

The national mean exposure to pollutants was greatest for the following groups:

  • For PM2.5 and SO2, the highest exposure was among the non-Hispanic Black population.
  • For CO, NO2, and O3, the non-Hispanic Asian population was the most exposed.
  • For PM10, Hispanic people experienced the greatest exposure.

While disparities in pollution exposure varied by pollutant and location, in no case did the researchers find non-Hispanic white people to be the most affected group.

The lowest exposure was experienced by:

  • non-Hispanic white people for CO, NO2, PM2.5, and PM10
  • the Hispanic population for O3
  • non-Hispanic Asian people for SO2
While the study also tied exposure levels to income, Dr. Marshall told Medical News Today, “Our findings indicate a stronger correlation for pollution levels with race/ethnicity than with income.”

Liu added:

“I would say systemic racism would be the driving force for racial/ethnic disparity in exposure to air pollution. Our study found it did exist, not simply as a reflection of income disparity as some people may argue.”

Dr. Zhang concluded:

“While it is crucial to augment our efforts to address the racial/ethnic exposure disparities remaining in all states, it is also important to recognize that air pollution does not follow state or city boundaries. It is our shared responsibility as a society to keep up our efforts to address regional air pollution problems, which have been associated with a wide range of adverse health effects and mortality.”

Multiracial identities and resilience to racism: The role of families

In this opinion feature, Dr. Annabelle Atkin — an assistant professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN — explores the unique challenges that Multiracial people face in attaining and maintaining well-being and offers suggestions on how to mitigate those challenges.

What challenges do Multiracial people face, and how do these challenges affect their well-being? Dr. Annabelle Atkin explains in this feature. Liliya Rodnikova/Stocksy

This article capitalizes the names of all racial groups. Although Medical News Today does not usually capitalize the term “white” when referring to racial identities, as we acknowledge that it does not encompass a shared lived experience, we have left it capitalized in this feature in order to reflect the author’s professional preference.

“I thought you were full Asian,” a professor of color once told me. “I didn’t know you were Asian!” a native Korean friend had told me a couple of years before.

Being Multiracial is often complicated for people to understand. This is especially the case in the context of the United States, where the dominant White group has fought to establish and maintain a clear color line throughout history to justify the oppression of People of Color.

The racial groups we know today are not biological. They were created, or socially constructed. And they are always changing. Just take a look at how the U.S. Census categories have shifted across the decades.

Multiracial children from the union of people of two or more different racial backgrounds do not fit neatly into people’s understanding of race as consisting of mutually exclusive categories. The mere existence of Multiracial people challenges the idea that racial groups are distinct, presenting a challenge to White supremacy, which is rooted in the belief in White racial purity.

To protect the racial power structure in the U.S., Multiracial people have been erased throughout its history. One of the most well-known examples of this is the one-drop rule, which was created to ensure that anyone with a single drop of “Black blood” be considered Black to justify enslavement and, later, Jim Crow segregation.

As a result, our Multiraciality is often overlooked, and many people still struggle with accepting and acknowledging Multiracial individuals because to do so challenges their Monoracial understanding of the world.

One study suggests that when presented with photos of Multiracial people, participants tended to categorize them as members of only one group, while those who categorized them as Multiracial took more time to do so.

In other words, it is more difficult for people to categorize Multiracial individuals because they do not conform to the Monoracial groups that they are familiar with.

Many people actually struggle with the cognitive process of categorizing Multiracial faces. Meanwhile, failing to recognize and acknowledge someone’s Multiraciality or imposing a Monoracial identity can mean that we only see part of who a person is if a Multiracial identity is important to them.

Multiracial individuals in a Monoracial world

Given the widespread erasure and invisibility of Multiracial individuals and their experiences, what consequences does living in a Monoracial society pose for Multiracial youth?

Society is changing rapidly, and there are more Multiracial-identifying people today than ever before.

There are more celebrities identifying as Multiracial and playing Multiracial rather than Monoracial characters on TV. There are also now more children’s books focused on proud Multiracial youth stories, and social media is allowing Multiracial youths across the globe to connect with and support one another.

However, the discrimination that Multiracial youths face is ongoing. Not only do people have a hard time categorizing Multiracial individuals, but they also try to force categorizations on Multiracial people or deny their belonging in certain groups.

Multiracial people may choose to identify in many different ways, but it is ultimately their choice to decide how they racially identify themselves. It is not something for others to impose on them.

Having encounters with others who challenge their identity and belonging to a group can be harmful for Multiracial youths. Research involving Multiracial individuals shows that when others invalidate or deny their racial identity, it can negatively affect their mental health.

Do Multiracial individuals share experiences with Monoracial individuals? Yes. Do some Multiracial individuals prefer to identify as Monoracial? Yes.

There is extreme diversity in Multiracial experiences, but even though these things are true, it does not justify uniquely Multiracial experiences and identities being systematically erased from the national discourse on race.

The impact of monoracism on mental health

This discrimination against Multiracial people for having multiple group memberships is referred to as “monoracism.

Although Monoracial individuals might talk with their family or friends of the same race to help them cope with experiences of discrimination, Multiracial youths might not have other Multiracial people to talk with.

In fact, there is also research-based evidence to suggest that Multiracial youths’ family members can be the perpetrators of monoracism, which has negative implications for mental health.

A study in the journal Addictive Behaviors in 2019, for example, indicates that discrimination from family members may be linked to substance use among Multiracial adults.

In my own interviews with young Multiracial adults, they shared that their parents sometimes made prejudiced comments about a racial group that they were part of or denied that they experienced discrimination as a member of a particular racial group.

These experiences could affect youths’ mental health because they are not getting the support they need. Their own parents are making them feel negatively about their racial group membership.

Building on this, my new study with Multiracial adolescents indicates that receiving such negative socialization messages is associated with lower self-esteem.

It is important to emphasize here that despite data showing that Multiracial youths report struggles with substance use or mental health, being Multiracial is not the problem.

The problem lies with our oppressive society. Multiracial people have been pathologized throughout history by society, labeled as confused, and likened to unnaturally bred animals. Despite dehumanization and erasure, however, Multiracial individuals have shown resilience in navigating monoracism.

Monoracism embedded in US society

Research has also contributed to perpetuating the idea that Multiracial people are more prone to mental health problems and substance use by failing to frame Multiracial experiences within the context of race and racism in the U.S.

Everett Verner Stonequist’s “marginal man theory” from 1937 suggested that Black-White Multiracial individuals were doomed to a permanent mental state of crisis.

To avoid perpetuating this idea, we need to be clear that the risks that Multiracial people face are the result of a racial system working to maintain racial boundaries to justify the so-called inferiority of People of Color.

We need to move toward critical approaches in thinking about the risks that a Monoracial system and ignorant viewpoints pose to the healthy development of Multiracial youth.

Again, the problem lies within society and in how people — including family members — treat Multiracial individuals.

Experiencing discrimination from one’s own family is a painful experience, but by developing racial awareness and racial socialization skills, family members can play a key role in facilitating the positive development of Multiracial youths.

Racial-ethnic identity can be protective

Developing a strong racial-ethnic identity can be an important protective factor for Multiracial individuals’ mental health.

There is an abundance of evidence surrounding the benefits of having a strong racial-ethnic identity in research with Monoracial individuals.

Similarly, studies suggest that for Multiracial individuals, reporting a strong racial-ethnic identity is related to higher levels of self-esteem, lower levels of depression, and less substance useTrusted Source.

What complicates the identity development process is that Multiracial youths have multiple identities to choose from.

In a paper in the Journal of Social Issues from 2009, Kerry Ann Rockquemore and colleagues outline the different identity options of Multiracial youths.

Multiracial individuals might choose to identify as a member of one of their Monoracial groups — for example, a Mexican and Thai person may identify as Mexican. Alternatively, they might identify as Multiracial, Biracial, Mixed Race, or a specialized term (such as Blackapino) to encompass all of their groups.

Other options include changing their identity across different contexts and situations or choosing not to identify with a racial group at all — for example, by identifying simply as human.

There is no one right way for Multiracial individuals to identify racially.

What is important is understanding whether or not one’s choice is influenced by internalized racism, such as believing negative racial stereotypes about their group — for example, choosing not to identify as Black because they are ashamed to be Black.

In fact, research suggestsTrusted Source that internalized racism is related to lower levels of connection to one’s racial-ethnic identity as well as lower levels of self-esteem and psychological well-being.

Feeling proud and confident in one’s racial-ethnic identity can potentially protect Multiracial individuals from discrimination and the negative mental health consequences associated with rejection or attacks on their identity.

The importance of racial-ethnic socialization

To foster a healthy, positive racial-ethnic identity and prepare children for the discrimination that they might experience as Multiracial People of Color, it is essential that parents and caregivers engage in the process of racial-ethnic socialization.

Racial-ethnic socialization involves transmitting messages to children about what it means to be a member of their racial-ethnic groups. For Multiracial children, this means not only teaching them what it means to be members of their Monoracial groups but also what it means to be Multiracial.

Family members are an important source of social support and socialization messages for youths. However, Multiracial families with members from different racial groups may not as easily understand one another’s experiences with race and discrimination.

For example, a White mother will never fully understand what it means to be viewed as a Black man in the U.S. Yet due to the persistence of the one-drop rule today, many Black-White Biracial men are perceived as Black, which has consequences for their safety — especially during police encounters.

Although Black families are familiar with having “the talk” every generation to prepare their children for the reality of living with racism, White parents have likely never been recipients of such a talk, let alone experienced any kind of racial discrimination.

In addition to teaching her Black-White Biracial son about being a Black man, the White mom also needs to address her son being Biracial, as there are unique experiences associated with each identity.

For example, her son might be discriminated against by other Black peers for having a White mom. Again, this is not an experience that the White mom would understand as a Monoracial person, though Multiracial parents may be able to relate to this a little better.

Furthermore, some parents of Multiracial youths endorse a colorblind racial ideology, in which they choose to believe and teach their children that race doesn’t matter and that they “don’t see color.”

This can be a dangerous ideology, as Multiracial children are People of Color, and their race does affect how people treat them. Again, the invalidation of a Multiracial person’s identity — including their identity as a Person of Color — is associated with negative mental health.

When parents and caregivers are dismissive of their children’s racial reality, they are not only saying that race doesn’t matter. They are also saying that racial discrimination isn’t real and that their racial identity isn’t important.

My qualitative research finds that receiving support from parents and caregivers that validates their discrimination experiences and encourages them to learn about and express their racial identity is important to youths. A follow-up survey study suggests that receiving such support was associated with higher self-esteem for young Multiracial adults.

Based on my interviews with young Multiracial adults and a review of the existing literature, I identified eight types of socialization messages and created a questionnaire to promote further research in this area.

As previously discussed, colorblind socialization involves telling children that race is not important, while silent socialization involves ignoring discussions about race altogether.

Negative socialization includes prejudicial and invalidating messages, such as talking negatively about a racial group that the child is a member of or denying their experiences with racism and discrimination.

However, there are also five positive types of socialization that parents and caregivers are encouraged to share.

  1. The first is navigating multiple heritages. This teaches children about their multiple cultural backgrounds and exposes them to people from all of their racial-ethnic groups.
  2. The second is Multiracial identity socialization. This means talking openly with children about their multiple identities and Multiraciality while instilling pride but not necessarily suggesting that they have to identify as Multiracial or identify with all of their groups.
  3. The third is that preparation for bias messages, such as “the talk,” is important. These messages make children aware of racism, including monoracism, that they might experience due to their Monoracial and Multiracial group memberships.
  4. The fourth is that race-conscious messages teach children about racism in society against all oppressed groups, not only their own. Understanding that racism is part of a system and not just an individual experience could help children contextualize their own experiences instead of blaming themselves for being the victims of discrimination.
  5. The fifth is that diversity appreciation messages instill acceptance of other cultures and racial-ethnic groups. This means appreciating differences in an informed, non-colorblind way.
‘Most of us have been conditioned not to talk about race’

Of course, knowing the right thing to say isn’t easy, as most of us have been conditioned not to talk about race.

Fortunately, there are some great resources out there, including the EmbraceRace organization and multiple books about racial-ethnic socialization, such as Farzana Nayani’s Raising Multiracial Children: Tools for Nurturing Identity in a Racialized World, Sharon Chang’s Raising Mixed Race: Multiracial Children in a Post-Racial World, and Rockquemore and Tracey Laszloffy’s Raising Biracial Children.

I also organize the Multiracial Families Project Facebook page, where diverse families can find resources for talking about race with their children.

There is still much research to be done in this area, but with this new questionnaire, we are eager to learn more with future studies.

I am currently collecting data with Multiracial adolescents aged 14–18 years and their parents to examine whether parents and caregivers promoting racial and cultural awareness is more beneficial for well-being than avoiding the topic of race or promoting colorblindness. Interested families can learn more about the study and sign up here.

Although I believe that it’s better for one’s mental health in the long run to be racially aware rather than ignorant, I also know from personal experience that knowing that racism is real can be stressful, anxiety provoking, and saddening. I hope to research these nuances and see what supports and socialization messages can promote positive mental health in combination with racial awareness.

We all can work toward becoming more educated about the experiences of Multiracial people and aware of how the Monoracial paradigm of U.S. society erroneously forces people into one racial category.

We also need to actively challenge the stereotypes we hold and assumptions we make about how a member of a certain racial group looks, acts, or identifies.

For those of us who are Multiracial, I hope it’s not only our faces that become more visible, but our narratives too.

Written by Annabelle Atkin, Ph.D. on September 14, 2021
2021-12-23T22:09:12+00:00December 23rd, 2021|

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