Mixed Greens

And justice for all

Posted 7/8/20

In her extraordinary documentary, “Cooked: Survival by Zip Code,” filmmaker Judith Helfand tells the story of the July 1995 heatwave that killed 739 people in Chicago. Most of the victims …

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Mixed Greens

And justice for all


In her extraordinary documentary, “Cooked: Survival by Zip Code,” filmmaker Judith Helfand tells the story of the July 1995 heatwave that killed 739 people in Chicago. Most of the victims were poor and elderly, most were African American and most lived in predominantly minority neighborhoods. City officials downplayed and initially denied the death toll.

To understand why low-income, minority neighborhoods were the hardest hit, Helfand takes us through the history of redlining, the practice of systematically denying mortgage capital to income-qualified borrowers because of their race. Based upon “residential security maps,” a rating system developed in the 1930s, redlining became part of a comprehensive strategy of discrimination practiced by predatory real estate speculators and financial institutions in communities across the U.S. The process began with “blockbusting,” propaganda campaigns designed to trigger white flight and reduce real estate prices in targeted neighborhoods. Speculators snapped up homes at bargain prices, then sold them at full value to minority buyers, reaping a quick profit and paving the way for the redlining of whole neighborhoods on the basis of minority population. With the official “redlined” designation in place, banks could refuse to provide African American homebuyers with mortgage financing regardless of their income qualifications, forcing them into alternative financing schemes known as land installment contracts, which charged above-market rates. Most critically, the sellers retained ownership and equity, so minority home buyers had no equity to borrow against to pay for upgrades and home improvements, or to launch a business or finance a child’s education. Redlining created a vicious circle that guaranteed a higher rate of foreclosure and kept minority homeowners cash-poor.  

Over the years, redlining came to affect every aspect of community life. It provided a pretext for withholding municipal and federal investment in Black communities, resulting in fewer parks, playgrounds, schools and medical facilities and less funding to upgrade infrastructure, all of which would have helped preserve housing values. The damage was pervasive: redlining was used by retail businesses to justify higher prices based upon zip code, by insurance companies to justify higher premiums and less consumer choice, and by banks to justify withholding loans for minority-owned businesses. Redlining meant less access to consumer credit, higher interest rates and more difficulty securing student loans. It suppressed investments in local grocery stores and other essential services. It laid the groundwork for environmental racism, evidenced by the siting of polluting industries and toxic waste sites in poorer neighborhoods and communities of color. Legal actions against banks that practice redlining are ongoing: three major settlements were awarded in 2015 based on cases brought by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Attorney General of New York. 

“Cooked” vividly connects the dots between the 1995 Chicago heatwave and the long term racial discrimination that made the emergency so deadly for communities of color. When Helfand overlays historical maps showing redlined Chicago neighborhoods with maps showing the areas where the most heatwave fatalities occurred, the picture is clear: poverty rates and mortality rates coincided.  Helfand then interviews city officials engaged in preparing for future climate and resiliency issues, asking whether they intend to address the underlying community and economic conditions that make low-income communities more vulnerable. From their befuddled responses, it’s clear that they have not considered concepts of environmental, economic and social justice in their problem-solving approach.    

The coronavirus pandemic puts these issues in high relief.  African Americans constitute 13 percent of the U.S. population and more than 23 percent of the nation’s deaths from COVID-19, according to the COVID-19 Data Tracker, a project of Atlantic Monthly. The project has correlated county-by-county infection and death rates with census data on racial demographics to produce a disturbing picture. Of the 20 counties across the country with the highest infection rates, 12 have predominantly white populations.  In the 20 counties with the highest death rates from COVID-19, eight are predominantly African American, including four of the counties with the highest COVID death rates.

Financial and social stress, substandard housing, proximity to polluting industrial facilities, food insecurity, unsafe work environments, and lack of access to health insurance and quality healthcare are all likely factors in this pattern of unequal burden. They are the legacy of institutionalized racial, economic and environmental inequality. Citing a 2018 federal report, Scientific American noted this past April that low-income communities and communities of color, already at higher risk of devastating damage from climate events, also suffer higher rates of illness related to pollution exposure, including cardiovascular disease, asthma and cancer. These persistent health and socioeconomic disparities create a much higher risk of death from COVID-19. 

Moving forward, we must act on the knowledge that environmental justice—“the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income” to ensure “equal protection from environmental and health hazards for all people”—is fundamental to the success of our pandemic response and our vision for economic recovery and effective climate action. For all.

Further knowledge:

Cooked: Survival by Zip Code: www.pbs.org/independentlens/films/cooked-survival-by-zip-code 

Interview with Dr. Lisa Cooper, Bloomberg Distinguished Professor and director of the Johns Hopkins Urban Health Institute and the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Equity: www.magazine.jhsph.edu/2020/racism-and-covid-19 

The Atlantic Monthly COVID Data Tracking Project: www.covidtracking.com/race 

Scientific American: www.scientificamerican.com/article/covid-19-and-climate-change-threats-compound-in-minority-communities/ 

Defining environmental justice: www.epa.gov/environmentaljustice 


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