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Environmental Equity… or the Lack Thereof?

A Look into the History of Environmental Pollution in Oakland, CA and its Drastic Effect on Poor and Minorities Communities

Introduction and Personal Interest

“The clinical history demonstrates that no age, sex, color, or condition in life was exempt from [cholera’s] influences”: this is what the House of Representatives claimed in their reoprt on the ubiquity of the United States’ Cholera Epidemic of 1873 (Harvard, Sequence 47 pg 2); however, unlike cholera, disease related to pollution from urban growth has always found a way to victimize the poor and disenfranchised. Why is this? As someone who grew up in an environmentally conscious family, I have always been curious about the history of pollution in America as well as the economic, social, and health ramifications of pollution on the populace. Understanding how certain groups of people have been disproportionately affected by urbanization and industrial pollution can help inform how we approach these problems today. Now, more than ever, it is clear that poor minority communities are more likely to suffer from pollution related health problems than their white counterparts. Oakland, CA is a perfect example of this phenomenon. Low-income majority black communities in West Oakland have been subjected to much higher levels of air pollution than any other part of the city; therefore, “people [living near the Port of Oakland] experience higher rates of asthma, cardiovascular disease, and premature death than other parts of Alameda County and the region” (Owning our Air, 3). The history of racial segregation in America should be examined alongside the history of urbanization and industrialization to get a clearer picture of why environmental pollution is really a social justice issue. Once the link is clear, we can both spread awareness of the problem and draft possible solutions to counteract these disparities. 

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History of the Problem

The detrimental health impacts of air pollution on minority communities in West Oakland can be, in large part, traced back to two connected timelines: African American’s mass immigration to Oakland and the enormous boom in the productivity of the Port of Oakland. Both of these phenomena were tremendously impacted by World War II. 

However, in order to put wartime events in context, it is important to understand the previous history of the Bay. The Port of Oakland has been around since the conception of the City of Oakland. In addition to the Port of Oakland’s ubiquitous presence in Oakland’s history, the notion of institutionalized racism and segregation has also been present since day one in Oakland.

As stated earlier, everything changed when World War II broke out. During the war a host of industries boomed: manufacturing of war ships, naval base positions, creation of naval bases, the railroad industry to supply naval bases, and work in the surrounding waterfront factories and canneries (Rosenstein). There were obvious labor shortages in the area, and many southern African Americans came to East Oakland to fill those job openings (Johnson 106). By the time America won WWII as part of the Allied Forces in 1945, the Port of Oakland had become massively important to the US economically and strategically, leading to the rapid growth of polluting industry in the area. Not only was Oakland one of two major ports that could now tap into the trans-Pacific trade routes, but the factories that used to support wartime business were now converted to other industries, many of which supported the export of goods from the port. 

The growth in the port’s industry and surge of African American residents came at the same time as a host of racist urban policies and housing initiatives: “With the sanction of the federal government, local authorities introduced new racial patterns in East Bay neighborhoods…that permitted local housing authorities to determine if and how segregation would be implemented (Johnson 104).” While rich white people migrated to the Oakland hills, redlining, restrictive (racist) loan policies, and discriminatory renters and realtors forced a large portion of the black community into “temporary housing [that] rested on landfill sites adjacent to railroads, industrial factories, and the waterfront” (Johnson 104) (Silvers). 

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Present-Day Problem and Efforts at Change

Imagine a city where neighborhood to neighborhood your life expectancy could be drastically different because of environmental pollution disparities. No need to imagine, Oakland is that city. Frightening statistics gathered and analyzed by the Environmental Indicators Project and University of Texas Austin reflect that “residents of the [predominantly white and wealthy] Oakland Hills neighborhoods are expected to live up to seven years longer than those from the flatland in West Oakland” (Environmental Defense Fund). The scariest and most prevalent pollutants are fine particulate matter and toxic air contaminants, and the largest offending party is the Port of Oakland and related trucking industry. The Port of Oakland is massive, and from loading cargo to transporting goods, “42 percent of local diesel PM impacts and cancer risk come from heavy-duty trucks”(Owning Our Air 2019). Combating the problem in Oakland means direct, extreme, and swift change in laws, economic ventures, and social engagement. There are many local and national organizations who are working diligently to approach this problem from a social and legal advocacy, data collection and ownership, and technological angle. 

On the social advocacy front, Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), is a grassroots organization that aims to create climate resilient communities across California. Their main focus is poor and minority communities, and their efforts in Oakland range from legal battles to food justice projects. They have such a large range of initiatives because these communities face far more than just pollution: “high rates of poverty and unemployment, and lack of access to healthful food options…  along with pollution, combine to inflict long-term damage [to] the health of residents” (Communities for a Better Envt.). Because cross-sector collaboration is so powerful when it comes to policy making, CBE is a part of the Oakland Climate Action Coalition (OCAC), a body with “over 30 other community-based, faith, labor, and environmental advocacy organizations” (OCAC). Even alone, CBE has fought many legal battles in support of Oakland residents and the environment, a recent case calling for “the city of Oakland [to adopt] a permanent ordinance to regulate crematorium activities under California Environmental Quality Act” after a new mega crematorium opened its doors near the Oakland Airport (Communities for a Better Envt.). Another important local initiative they have started is the Clean Food Project, which aims to reclaim the local food network in Oakland and rely less on polluting imports and large grocery chains that suck money out of the community. According to their website, not only does “the food system [account] for 17% of all fossil fuel use in the United States” (Communities for a Better Envt.), but also a local survey showed that people “travelled an average of 20 minutes to their most common shopping location, and over half of them made those trips by car” (Sowing Seeds). 

In addition to social advocacy groups like CBE, ventures like the West Oakland Indicators Project and port electrification projects aim to save the Earth and empower communities through technological advancements. The West Oakland Indicators Project (WOIP) puts the power in people’s hands by giving average citizens GPS enabled particulate matter sensors to install in their own home or community gathering space (Gordon). Utilizing citizens as data collection officers is not only efficient and cost effective, but it’s also “empowering the citizens to realize that they have ownership of the data”, which is important in fostering a mindset where caring for the environment becomes a personal passion (Gordon). As we know, most of the air pollution these sensors pick up in Oakland is due to pollution from the Port of Oakland, more specifically, the large amount of semi-trucks that pass through the area every day. That is why port electrification projects, the effort to make previously fossil fueled processes at the port powered by electricity or hydrogen-fuel cells, are so promising for communities like Oakland. Although the upfront cost is steeper than many diesel powered competitors, battery powered semi-trucks like the ones Tesla is designing could save drivers an estimated ten cents per mile. 

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Action Steps

Personally, I think there is a ton that can be done to combat the issue of minority West Oakland neighborhoods suffering disproportionately from pollution. For one, supporting all of the aforementioned projects and community organizations can make a big difference. Whether your engagement comes in the form of joining a climate rally that Communities for a Better Environment organizes or just shopping at locally owned grocery stores, it all makes a difference. I think that the city of Oakland government could benefit greatly from making the UN Climate goals a priority in West Oakland, especially the goals to create sustainable cities and communities, provide for the health and wellbeing of all, take climate action, and reduce inequalities. This could come in the form of continued alliance between government bodies and the Oakland Climate Action Coalition, supporting urban farms in parks and schools, and supporting aggressive legislation to curb carbon and particulate matter emissions. I also think that communication between government and local neighborhoods is key, and hosting information sessions at local churches, schools, and community centers is a great way to bring relevant information to the public while allowing for direct input from those who are most affected. Being adept at using social media is also vitally important. If Oakland residents could reliably look at the government’s Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook feed for details about community events and local policy updates, there would be a level of transparency to the governing process that allows for trust building and collaboration between citizens and their government. It would also be great if people from the West Oakland Indicators Project and Communities for a Better Environment were invited to be a part of a government board on climate action and inequality. There is also a lot to be done completely independent of the government. Spreading climate awareness through your school or workplace, being active in local protests, and shopping at locally owned West Oakland stores are all good ideas. The situation in West Oakland is dire; however, if we all work together, the future is undoubtedly brighter than the past. Please, make it known to everyone who will listen that climate change and pollution is just as much a social justice issue as it is a climate issue.

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Links to Full Google Docs

Works Cited

Full Essay


I encourage you to leave a comment with any reactions, thoughts, insights, or questions you have on this topic or a related field that you feel passionate about. Have you seen some of the same trends in your community? What efforts have you observed to combat inequities where you live?

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COMMENTS: 1
  1. April 24, 2020 by Karen

    Fascinating project, Erin. As a resident of the Oakland Hills, I have long been aware that the air in West Oakland is more polluted than the air where I live, but I didn’t know quite how much more until you presented the stark reality in the graphic above. It’s appalling that nationwide these patterns repeat themselves, e.g. in “Cancer Alley,” the lower reaches of the Mississippi River. In Oakland, major steps are being made to pair climate action with equity in the ECAP program–Equitable Climate Action Plan. I hope other cities will take this approach!

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