“I can't breathe.” These words have become a rallying cry for protestors demanding racial equity and, in particular, an end to police violence against Black Americans.

For environmental policy experts, “I can't breathe” resonates in a distinct way: Black Americans are disproportionately affected by air pollution. There are also striking racial disparities in who is exposed to water pollution and who lives near facilities that produce hazardous waste.

Two such scholars at RAND—policy researcher Jaime Madrigano and Benjamin Preston, director of RAND's Community Health and Environmental Policy Program—are leading an innovative effort to highlight how discriminatory policies like redlining have shaped environmental health disparities we see today. Their goal: create an interactive map of the United States to motivate environmental policy that advances antiracism.

As part of a series of conversations about ongoing projects in RAND's growing portfolio of high-quality research on racial equity policy, Madrigano and Preston discussed with RAND president and CEO Michael D. Rich how widespread environmental racism is, the growing urgency to address this problem, and where their research fits in.

Michael D. Rich: What inspired you to pursue this research?

Jaime Madrigano: I've been studying the health impacts of pollution and other environmental hazards, such as climate-related hazards, like heat, for a long time. There's been a very consistent pattern throughout my research and research conducted by others that continues to pop up. Certain populations—in particular, low-income populations and racial minorities, especially Black Americans—are disproportionately impacted by environmental hazards.

There's a lot of value to that research, in terms of demonstrating this consistent pattern. But with the events of last year, I've been trying to educate myself more about systemic racism. That compelled me to think more deeply about these issues in terms of the systemic causes of these environmental disparities that we just see over and over again.

Where you live affects your health. Segregation was intentionally codified into law and has really defined where people live today. So, you really start to think about these environmental disparities more in terms of environmental racism, rather than thinking about race disparities or race inequities.

Read the full article about environmental racism by Jaime Madrigano, Benjamin Lee Preston, and Michael D. Rich at RAND Corporation.