A new study of pollution effects in Los Angeles has found the more a person drives, the less air pollution they are exposed to.
That may seem like a no-brainer to the simpleminded. After all, if you’re inside your vehicle it seems less likely you’d exposed to the toxins outside your vehicle. Nevertheless, university research departments have mouths to feed too, so now your suspicions about being in an enclosed environment versus an open-air environment when it comes to pollution are confirmed.
What may be less obvious to you is that not only is pollution worse if you’re out walking around, breathing in the air around you, it’s also more racist.
Author Sammy Roth explains in his thoughtfully titled L.A.Times article, “White drivers are polluting the air breathed by L.A.’s people of color“:
I asked the study’s lead author, Geoff Boeing, a professor at the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy.
He told me it largely comes down to the shameful history of Los Angeles County’s low-income communities of color being torn apart to make way for freeways — a history that has been extensively documented by The Times. Today, many residents of the county’s whiter, more affluent neighborhoods — who were often able to keep highways out of their own backyards — commute to work through lower-income Black and Latino neighborhoods bisected by the 10, 110, 105 freeways and more.
While freeway placements were sometimes used as informal Democrat segregationist policies to isolate black communities and prevent them from growing and spreading, that fact does not account for this new “air is racist” assumption. In fact, I find Roth’s assertion to be offensive in and of itself.
Roth is assuming that “people of color” are still trapped behind freeway lines, as if none of us have managed to make it to the suburbs over the past fifty years. The very title of his piece is grossly paternalistic. Are we to imagine only white people are driving through Los Angeles from their tree-lined suburbs every day? That no black or Latino person is blessed enough or has worked hard enough to earn that picket fence and air-conditioned drive? Roth makes it sound like we’re all just huddling in the freeway medians, shivering and coughing from horrible white-people exhaust, as they laugh and wave on their way to the country club.
Mr. Roth, we’re middle class Americans too. How does he know that it is only “white people” polluting the lungs of “people of color” on their way to their obviously earth-killing jobs?
Roth seems to know this because he is one of them, and in the grand tradition of all guilty white liberals everywhere, he wants everyone to know he sees his privilege and is ashamed of his privilege. He’s just not going to undo his privilege...obviously. Just writing about it should be enough for you to know he is a Very Good Person(TM).
Like many Angelenos, I spend a lot of time behind the wheel of my car. I drive from my Westside apartment to Dodger Stadium near downtown and farther east to hike in the San Gabriel Mountains. I take the 405 Freeway north to the San Fernando Valley to see friends, or occasionally south to the L.A. Times office — or to the airport, where I grow my carbon footprint even further.
So I couldn’t help but consider my own complicity while reading a new study from USC researchers, finding that Angelenos who drive more tend to be exposed to less air pollution — and Angelenos who drive less tend to be exposed to more pollution.
The demographics are what they are. There is a socio-economic divide between many white Americans and those of other races, particularly black Americans, which means that yes, there are likely to be more white people in the suburbs than in the inner city. Fair enough, but Roth’s assertions still smack of racist “white savior” syndrome. He doesn’t seem aware that there are plenty of black families (like my own) driving the freeways of California from the suburbs every day. I’m not anxious to take on the label of “commuter serial killer,” but it does feel really offensive that he doesn’t even think people like my family exist. He is so isolated from the notion of the black middle class he put it in his headline.
In the end, the whole discussion is moot anyway. Buried toward the bottom was this telling sentence:
Boeing was careful to note that the study doesn’t conclusively prove that patterns in how Angelenos get to work are solely responsible for different levels of air pollution in different communities.
The study and this article was clearly just a way to advocated for more public transportation in California – an idea that sounds good but has been mismanaged for decades and is challenged by the geography of an area like southern California.
In the end, Roth was able to appease a tiny bit of that white guilt. He told people about the study (click here to read for yourself; it’s about 22 pages), about racist air, and bad racist drivers. He did his part. Now, he can go back to his three-bedroom condo in Pasadena and enjoy that favorite-classic-literary-character themed dinner party he has planned for Saturday night.