Stay home, work safe? Environmental racism complicates that for many Houstonians
When Keith Downey started hearing the news about the coronavirus, he thought about the environment. He recalled the impact of big-dollar infrastructure projects that displaced residents and remade Kashmere Gardens, where he is a community leader and the Super Neighborhood president.
Drive just a few minutes in any direction here, and you’ll quickly hit freeways and train tracks. When sections of Loop 610 were elevated, he said, it strangled the community. Now, Kashmere Gardens stands to be impacted all over again by the Texas Department of Transportation’s impending I-45 widening project.
Kashmere Gardens is home to six concrete batch plants, too, one of which, Downey noted, sits just half a mile from one of the only full-service hospitals in the area. “You can see one from the other,” he said, “no trees, just open air.”
Originally from Houston, Downey worked in New York City as an architectural designer and construction project manager for the city before returning home. Though his time as Super Neighborhood president didn’t start until after Hurricane Harvey in 2017, Downey was quick to help organize rescues and relief efforts, canvassing the neighborhood to see who still needed Sheetrock removed, who had heard from FEMA and who needed legal help. At community meetings, he’s the one sharing information, saying, “Take two of everything, one for you and one for your neighbor.”
When Downey and other community members were going door to door, they were often greeted by tears of relief from people happy to see someone who cared. This work showed him the failures of short-term government engagement that didn’t seem to last as long as the mold did in a neighborhood already confronting decades of discrimination.
Kashmere Gardens is one of several historically African American neighborhoods that first developed outside the edges of Houston before being annexed by the city in the middle of the 20th century. The benefits of annexation, though, were slow to come, if not absent, for the neighborhoods of mostly single-family homes. The communities, as Rafael Longoria and Susan Rogers wrote, were “leapfrogged twice, first in the move to the suburban periphery and second in the rush to redevelop the center.”
Though each neighborhood’s story differs, some of the contours are shared. “We’re dealing with things on multiple fronts,” Downey said. “We’re dealing with the creosote, the concrete batch plants.”
“And now COVID-19 on top of that,” he said.
Home as a safe space
Health officials and elected leaders have emphasized staying home as key to stopping the spread of the virus. But those recommendations assume a level of affluence and ability not shared by all.
And even for those who can stay home, the environmental risks in their own walls, pipes and surroundings vary significantly. The landscape of environmental racism in Houston and elsewhere means that “home” takes on different meanings for different communities. In the 1980s, Texas Southern University professor Dr. Robert Bullard showed the disproportionate presence of incinerators, dumps and other environmental hazards in Houston’s Black neighborhoods.
It wasn’t an accident, he found. It occurred alongside restrictive covenants and mechanisms that kept neighborhoods segregated as well as a pattern of municipal neglect for many of the Black neighborhoods that had been annexed into the city over time. In “Invisible Houston,” Bullard notes that working-class communities of color were not just exposed to more pollution at work, but in their homes, as well.
That means, during a pandemic, that many of the essential workers are people of color, and many are going home at the end of the day to neighborhoods more exposed to environmental hazards.
Houston mythology suggests that this sort of thing shouldn’t happen in a city without zoning, said to have emerged as a sprawling free-for-all. But communities of color and experts know better. “The idea that home is sacred or has this protective shell is culturally the case,” said Dr. Andrea Roberts, a Texas A&M University professor of landscape architecture and urban planning whose work centers on African American placemaking history. “But it’s not consistent with the way development happens.”
She said, “There is zoning in Houston, even though we don’t call it that. It’s the ease with which companies are able to set up shop in the middle of neighborhoods or adjacent to neighborhoods of color. There’s been environmental racism by zoning for years.”
This has led to broader patterns of disconnection, she said, disconnection from technological infrastructure and information resources like social media and WiFi and from health care resources like intensive care units, even nearby clinics. It has also reinforced an exploitative logic of extraction based on expendability. “There’s this sense that Black bodies are disposable, Black labor is expendable,” Dr. Roberts said, “and for that reason, there’s not this investment in health.”
So, when the coronavirus started to spread, said Zoe Middleton, the Southeast Texas director for the housing research and advocacy group Texas Housers, “it was very clear that it was going to be a public health disaster, and that it was going to, like all disasters, expose existing inequalities. When you are forced to stay home to save your own life, we see the state’s failure to invest appropriately and support the creation of safe housing.”
Now, as cases surge in Texas and the pandemic’s horizon appears to be receding, housing is at the center of the crisis, whether it’s informed by the state’s lack of tenant protections and overflowing eviction dockets, the ongoing, unequal recovery from previous hurricanes and disasters and histories of displacement, gentrification and surging unaffordability. Home, in other words, is at the center of the crisis.
For Black communities, the writer bell hooks observes, home is a site of resistance and affirmation. There, the labor of Black women, most often, can create something protective. Home is where Black people can be themselves, away from the “dehumanizing impact of racism,” hooks writes.
But the reach of environmental racism extends even into the spaces that should be uniquely safe. In this pandemic, as we’ve all been urged to stay home for public health, the longstanding failures to protect everyone’s home are proving fatal.
It took a couple news cycles, but the unequal outcomes of the coronavirus quickly became clear. By early April, the disparities were striking. In the county surrounding Milwaukee, 73 percent of people who had died from the virus were Black, according to the Washington Post, even though they made up 28 percent of the population. In Chicago, Black residents represented 68 percent of COVID-19-related deaths, but 30 percent of the population, according to the Chicago Tribune.
An analysis by the Brookings Institution using data from February to early June found that “in every age category, Black people are dying from COVID at roughly the same rate as white people more than a decade older.” By the start of summer, roughly one in three Black Americans knew someone who had died of coronavirus, according to a Washington Post-Ipsos poll. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also show that Black and Indigenous people were five times as likely to be hospitalized due to coronavirus than non-Hispanic white people, while non-white Hispanic people were four times as likely. And on and on.
For Downey and other community organizers, experts and allies, the pandemic is exposing — yet again — the systemic and environmental racism that translates inequality in the built environment and exposure to pollution into increased health risks for many Black and brown communities.
In March, UT Health mapped the areas in Harris County most at risk for severe COVID-19 cases requiring hospitalizations. At the top of the list were the communities where Downey lives and works, communities along the Ship Channel and in other largely non-white areas.
Downey, who grew up in Fifth Ward, has asthma, a respiratory condition that puts people at greater risk of becoming “very sick” from the coronavirus, according to the CDC. In the Census tracts that make up the Super Neighborhood in northeast Houston where Downey is now president, asthma rates hover around 11 percent, according to a coronavirus tracker for the City of Houston.
It’s a pattern that holds across many neighborhoods that were redlined, ignored and systematically denied resources. In southeast Houston, which is predominantly Black, rates push past 13 percent, compared to the largely white and wealthy River Oaks neighborhood, where rates are around 7 percent.
Other underlying conditions that have been linked to poorer COVID-19 outcomes are of particular concern for communities of color, explained Dr. Denae King, a research program manager at the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University. “We have lots of older retirees in many of the communities who, as minorities, are more at risk for preexisting illnesses like cardiovascular disease, hypertension and diabetes.”
Even at the start of the pandemic, the Environmental Protection Agency put out a memo that "invited industry to ignore vital safeguards for air, water and hazardous waste during the outbreak,” as Bridgette Murray, a Houston community leader who lives in Pleasantville, another historically African American neighborhood, and Elena Craft with Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), wrote in a Houston Chronicle op-ed.
That was a move echoed by the state environmental agency, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which said they would “exercise discretion” in enforcement. But that discretion has translated into a reduction in their pursuit of fines for violations of environmental laws and enforcement actions and increased permitting.
Those decisions put some homes even more in harm’s way. On social media, vivid photographs of the hills of Los Angeles or clear urban waterways spoke to the reduction in car traffic pollution, but that’s just one source of air pollution. In Houston, said Dr. Grace Tee Lewis, a health scientist with EDF, "our industrial businesses are still operating, and we don’t need to make those individuals, particularly those who live in fenceline communities, more vulnerable by relaxing any enforcement.”
An analysis by NPR found that some air pollution actually increased in Houston, as industrial operations increased to meet demand for plastics that are used to manufacture PPE. “You’re asking people to shelter in place,” said Dr. King, “which means they’re now exposed 24 hours a day to potential air quality concerns.”
In this pandemic, the desire expressed by many people, including elected officials, who are eager to get back to “normal,” makes sense. But it’s these unequal realities they’re referencing, intentionally or not — and ignoring.
The need to govern
Though the language of this pandemic has focused on individual actions and behaviors, its impact, and the recovery from it, will largely be determined by institutional and governmental decisions.
“The health disparities and environmental inequities need to be addressed,” Dr. Tee Lewis said. “If we could, and make real improvements in access and care and other needs, that would strengthen public health.”
For Houston, there are at least some reasons to hope. Mayor Sylvester Turner, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and top officials are at least talking about the health disparities and the preexisting landscape of inequity. Change, said Dr. King, might not be too far behind. “It is a conversation that we’ve not had for quite some time.”
“There’s a change in political will,” said Middleton, who urged leaders to see the pandemic as a call, and opportunity, to govern.
And then there’s the very resilience and longstanding organizing of the most affected communities, driven by residents who have developed the knowledge and resources to build places of refuge. “You don’t have to start from zero,” Downey said of the community-led response, “you already have your networks there, you know that you have relationships with people, you know what the needs generally are.”
Through the Kashmere Gardens Super Neighborhood’s Facebook page, residents can find posts about mask giveaways, CDC recommendations and the latest, local COVID-related regulations. They’ll find information about how to get fresh produce boxes from the farmers market with discounts for SNAP/EBT, where to pick up distributions from the food bank and how to get meals delivered to homebound seniors or residents with disabilities.
Downey is careful to monitor his own health as he distributes food, sends emails and makes phone calls to engage his community, attempting to find out where residents are, how they are doing and what their needs might be. As much as communities like Kashmere Gardens step up, however, he wants to see real government response in the wake of the pandemic. “Don’t think the response is a community liaison working for six months before they make a career move,” Downey said. “We’ve seen a lot of this post-Harvey.”
As the federal government has failed states, and states have failed cities, cities have failed their residents. It’s all too familiar for some Texans, as Dr. Roberts said, who have a lot of experience putting everything back together after it all falls apart. But that’s a normal we shouldn’t have to go back to, either.
The response to an unprecedented crisis should be unprecedented. To get through it, governments must invest in expanded testing, lead with science and ensure engaged assistance that addresses the layered nature of environmental racism. Once we are through it, the same work must continue, using what we know to help those who need it most — seniors who are struggling to repair their homes, still, after Harvey, people who are facing evictions, parents who are wrestling with the competing, almost impossible demands of providing childcare, education and their own paid labor, “essential” workers who are paid below a living wage to perform high-risk jobs.
Our homes are sanctuaries. It’s where we go when we need to feel safe and protected. It’s part of what makes us who we are. It’s good that health officials and elected leaders recognize the value of our homes during a pandemic — and it’s time for them to start valuing them as much all the time.
“The service industry, the health care workers, transportation — these are your blue-collar workers. Your industry, your Ship Channel, your trucking, your concrete batch plants that build your roads and highways, the majority of them are on the eastern side of the city,” explained Downey. “A debt is truly owed.”
Binkovitz is a writer living in Houston, Texas. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Houston Chronicle, NPR and Smithsonian Magazine. She can be found on Twitter @leahbink.
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