Department Spotlight


Whitworth study sheds light on disparity in living conditions

Kevin Graman
Staff writer
April 28, 2007
The Spokesman-Review

If one measure of racial equality is the opportunity to grow up in a safe and healthy neighborhood, Spokane has some work to do, a Whitworth University sociology class found out this spring quarter.

By analyzing census and environmental data, the class discovered that Hispanics are more likely than any other group to live in a polluted neighborhood.

The study is the first of its kind in Spokane, said Whitworth assistant professor Jenni Holsinger, who teaches Sociology 425, "Making Change."

The analysis by her 14 students this spring semester confirmed what other research has shown nationally – a correlation between race and exposure to environmental toxins.
To sociologists, the professor said, racism is not synonymous with prejudice, but rather a description of the nature of society in which one group of people is advantaged over another.
"Race is a social construct," Holsinger said. "It clearly determines what one's experiences and opportunities look like."

Race also can correspond with environmental risk.

Holsinger's 14 students performed a quantitative analysis of data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Environmental Protection Agency to come up with a "coefficient," or number between negative 1 and 1, to indicate the correlation of race to proximity to environmental hazards.

Hispanics had a coefficient of 0.44; African Americans, 0.37; and American Indians, 0.37. Whites had a coefficient of -0.65.

These numbers are statistically significant, Holsinger said. They show white people in Spokane are far less likely than minorities to live in neighborhoods where they are exposed to toxins, according to the students' analysis.

"This finding has serious implications for the health, educational experiences, life expectancies, and overall well-being of minorities in Spokane, particularly children, as research continually shows," Holsinger said.

Said student Lindsay Tootell, "I didn't think a lot about environmental racism before the research. Finding the extent of it was surprising."

Though a small percentage of the city's population, racial minorities total more than 36,000 people in Spokane.

As the Whitworth students point out, environmental justice has been an issue in America for least about 40 years.

In 1968, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of environmental justice during a strike by garbage workers in Memphis. Thousands of tons of toxic chemicals forced the evacuation of "Love Canal" residents in New York in 1978. In 1984, a methyl isocyanate gas spill at a Union Carbide plant killed thousands of people in Bhopal, India.

It has been known for some time that environmental hazards disproportionately affect minorities in the United States, where more than 91 percent of Hispanics and 86 percent of African Americans live in urban areas. Only 70 percent of whites live in urban areas, which are typically at higher risk of air pollution.

According to the National Alliance for Hispanic Health, Hispanics in America are more than twice as likely as non-Hispanic whites to live in places that fall short of Environmental Protection Agency standards for airborne-particulate matter, and three times more likely to live in areas with high levels of airborne lead pollution.

"We live in a very segregated society," Holsinger said, "and Spokane is not immune to that."
Her students also were surprised that in terms of correlation with environmental hazards, race was a more important predictor than class.

In some cases, student Bud Bareither said, areas with a concentration of EPA-regulated sites extended into middle-class neighborhoods.

Holsinger explained that an explanation of why some groups are more affected than others would require more advanced analysis, controlling for such factors as age, population density, and class as determined by education and income levels.

A 2005 analysis by The Associated Press showed African Americans were 79 percent more likely than whites to be living in neighborhoods with the highest risk of industrial pollution. The AP study also pointed out that neighborhoods with the highest pollution scores were also poorer, less educated and had higher unemployment.

Holsinger said her class hopes to present its findings at a conference on environmental justice at the University of Michigan this summer.

Knowing about environmental racism in your community is empowering, student Rebeccah Todd said, but it's also frustrating. The class has now been assigned to find ways of fixing the problem, she said, "and that's a lot more complicated."

Copyright 2007. Reprinted with permission of The Spokesman-Review. Permission is granted in the interest of public discussion and does not imply endorsement of any product, service or organization otherwise mentioned herein.

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