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Racism isn’t just a public health crisis. It’s a chronic illness

Dwaign Tyndal

As the Executive Director of Alternatives for Community and Environment, a black-led environmental justice organization in Roxbury, I welcome Mayor Walsh’s recent declaration that racism is a public health crisis. The city of Boston can do a lot to address its history of racist policies in housing, education, environment, and more. We look forward to continuing that work.

But if we’re actually going to solve the crisis of racism, we need to clearly understand the nature of this public health crisis: racism in America isn’t just a virus or a broken leg. Racism in America is a chronic illness. It won’t be healed unless we understand the underlying cause and treat it.

I am grateful for the attention that’s being paid to racism right now. The recent videos of police brutality and the pandemic have made it impossible to ignore deep systemic inequities — the death rate for black folks is three times higher than the death rate for white Americans.

But I’m also skeptical. Once the news media moves on, will Mayor Walsh and other political leaders still care?

Racism in America is a pervasive problem. What we’ve seen in the last few weeks — horrific recordings of police violence against black folks, and the loud, angry response across the country — that’s a bad flare-up. But treating the flare-up alone won’t treat the underlying chronic disease.

The disease of racism isn’t just a white policeman kneeling on a black man’s neck. It’s black and brown people breathing polluted air. It’s black folks in Boston spending 64 more hours stuck on the bus than white folks. It’s decades of housing policy that leave the average black family in Boston with $8 in wealth while the average white family has $247,500.

To really treat this chronic illness, we have to go to the core, heal the original wounds, and repair the damage it has done to our systems. That means looking closely at how we ended up with such deep inequity. It means calling into question long-held ways of making decisions, like rethinking the way police do their job, reconsidering the way we “redevelop” neighborhoods and force longtime residents out, doing more to redress environmental injustice like unhealthy air and unequal transit and lack of green space for black and brown Bostonians.

At ACE, we’re dedicated to this fight and rooted in the historic black heart of Boston, Roxbury’s Nubian Square. We’re fighting for transit justice. For environmental justice, reduced pollution and cleaner water and more access to green space. We’re fighting for housing justice and ending displacement. We’re working with our youth program REEP (Roxbury Environmental Empowerment Program) to fight for better employment opportunities, better training, justice in our education system.

In the short-term, we’re asking that when the BPDA permits developers in key Nubian Square areas of Crescent Parcel, the Malcolm X Parcel, the Putnam Parcel and Parcel 3, they commit to passive house and LEED Platinum buildings, as well as traffic flows to increase walking and reduce vehicle air pollution.

We’re also asking that as the MBTA decides how and when to fully relaunch bus service, they look at the impact on black and brown and immigrant communities first. Our communities are hardest-hit by COVID-19, the most reliant on the bus, and the most in danger of contagion on crowded buses.

So let’s keep fighting the flare-up. I welcome Mayor Walsh’s leadership as we use the energy of this moment to fight police violence against our communities. But let’s also use some of this momentum for the long-term fight. Racism is a chronic disease and we have to be in this fight for the long haul.

Dwaign Tyndal is executive director of Alternatives for Community and Environment

environmental justice, inequality, racial income gap, racism
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