Environmental dangers are connected to racism

Let’s attack problems with better policies, greater awareness


When the spring sky is bright blue, it’s easy to forget the apocalyptic orange skies from last summer’s historic wildfires. But Eddie Ahn remembers two incidents from those dark days well. In the Tenderloin, an unmasked stranger threatened to slap him because she assumed he was Japanese. A week earlier, a different unmasked stranger cursed at him on the assumption he is Chinese.

While it wasn’t the first time Ahn has heard anti-Asian slurs, it is rare for him to share the explicit details as he doesn’t want the focus to be about himself.

“Visibility is really important right now,” Ahn, who is also the executive director of the local environmental justice nonprofit, Brightline Defense, told me about anti-Asian language and violence. “There’s short-term awareness and the question becomes: What can we do to fix it?”

Responding to this question can help push the needle slowly toward environmental justice. Groups have built on Black Lives Matter to speak out about radioactive contamination in the historic Black neighborhood of Bayview Hunters Point, as well as Treasure Island. The pandemic’s impact on San Francisco’s high-density, low-income neighborhoods has highlighted the need for equal access to open spaces.

Now, awareness about anti-Asian violence underlines the need to address systemic racism through better environmental policies. When Ahn heard the slurs, he was installing sensors to monitor air quality in the Tenderloin, SoMa and Chinatown. Neighborhood residents, many of whom are low-income, immigrants from Asia and Latin America, and Black, are disproportionately burdened with air pollution. More information could lead to better policies, including badly needed resources for single room occupancy (SRO) buildings.

“I know from living in the SRO and from doing my outreach that air quality is a major issue,” Reggie Reed, a tenant organizer with the Central City SRO Collaborative, which is working with Brightline Defense, told me.

Many SRO residents Reed knows suffer from various health conditions, including asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung disease. Rooms can lack proper ventilation, which may expose residents to mold and other indoor pollution. Richer localized data collected from sensors will likely show that residents are also exposed to higher levels of vehicle emissions when they open their windows, not to mention wildfire smoke.

The environmental danger is inescapable and hard to predict. In this way, it’s similar to bigoted verbal attacks people in the community also endure. In addition to unhealthy air, Reed wants to share that he’s been called the “n” word and other racial slurs, in every SRO he’s called home.

“We’re in a world of darkness,” Reed said. “It’s up to all of us to shine the light.”

As Ahn explained, this overt racism is both depressing and motivating. It amplifies the need for action, just as the apocalyptic skies last summer underlined the need to care about climate change and air quality. In fact, it was the wildfire smoke that inspired Qiu Mei Fan, a senior at Galileo High School who lives with her family in an SRO, to share news about the sensors with Mandarin and Cantonese-speaking members of the community.

“Because of the orange sky, I really feel that the knowledge of air quality is really important,” Fan, who is helping raise awareness about Brightline Defense’s efforts through the Community Youth Center, told me. “People are facing the air quality problem differently.”

Qui Mei Fan, a Community Youth Center leader from Galileo High School, makes a presentation about the Brightline Air Quality Program for the Bay Area Youth Climate Summit. (Courtesy Brightline Defense)

Qui Mei Fan, a Community Youth Center leader from Galileo High School, makes a presentation about the Brightline Air Quality Program for the Bay Area Youth Climate Summit. (Courtesy Brightline Defense)

It’s not surprising that environmental degradation burdens some communities more than others. But San Francisco hasn’t done nearly enough to address these injustices. For that reason, it’s understandable that Ahn and Reed aren’t sugarcoating reality anymore with euphemisms. Dark skies and racist slurs are sometimes the only way to provoke change.

Local, state and federal policymakers should take swift action in response. With San Franciscans, such as Kamala Harris, Nancy Pelosi, Gavin Newsom and Dianne Feinstein, in power, it should be possible to do more. Rooms in SRO buildings should be equipped with air filters. Sidewalks in the Tenderloin and SoMa should have mature trees. Neighborhood children should have access to open spaces to play, including parks and closed streets.

And San Franciscans who witness bigotry and violence, which includes slurs and outright attacks, should not stand idle. Please visit StopAAPIHate.org to report an incident and access resources.

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. She is a guest opinion columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner. Check her out at robynpurchia.com.

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