African American History Month: Environmental Justice and Quality of Life

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African American History and Achievements

African American History Month

To commemorate the contributions to our nation made by people of African descent, American historian Carter G. Woodson established Black History Week. The first celebration occurred on February 12, 1926. It was later expanded to Black History Month in 1976 as part of the nation’s bicentennial celebration and has continued as a commemoration of African American accomplishments.

In 2014, we celebrated both the 50th Anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 20th Anniversary of Executive Order 12898. Both were key events in African American and American history and set in motion action to improve the overall quality of life experienced by vulnerable populations. And both focused federal attention on environmental and human health effects of federal actions on minority and low-income populations. Despite social improvements brought forth by such federal actions, health disparities have remained widespread among members of racial and ethnic minority populations over the last 20 years.

Environmental Justice, African Americans and Vulnerable Communities

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines environmental justice as the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income by developing, implementing, and enforcing environmental laws, regulations, and policies. However, the environmental justice movement goes beyond creating healthier environments. It is also a drive for social change aimed at meeting basic human needs and enhancing our economic quality, health care, housing, human rights, environmental protection, and democracy. Despite progress in some of these areas, disparities in quality of life for African Americans and other minority groups remain, and key health outcomes vary greatly by race, sex, socioeconomic status, and geographic location.

For example, in the latest CDC Health Disparities & Inequalities Report (CHDIR, 2013), it was reported that unemployed and low-income persons were less likely to report their health as ‘excellent’ or ‘very good’ and shared a disproportionate burden of air pollution exposure and risk. In 2009, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that 40% of all U.S. households did not have easy access (i.e., access within 1 mile of residence) to supermarkets and large grocery stores for healthy food choices. Access was often lower among residents of rural, lower-income, and predominantly minority communities than among residents of other communities.

Other quality of life issues affect health as well. The 2013 CHDIR also reported that nearly one out of five non-Hispanic blacks and American Indian/Alaska Natives had not completed high school, and at least one out of 10 of these racial/ethnic groups had incomes less than the official poverty threshold in 2013.

CDC/ATSDR’s Efforts toward Improving Quality of Life

African American Couple Jogging

CDC/ATSDR recognizes the health disparities that affect quality of life in vulnerable communities. We are steadfastly promoting best public health practices to continue to safeguard not only African American communities, but all communities by working continually with local/state and national partners and organizations to evaluate environmental exposures and potential adverse health effects. CDC works toward these goals through partnership projects and initiatives focused on such topics as health problems linked to harmful exposures and diseases related to toxic substances.

CDC also conducts Health Impact Assessments (HIAs) which bring potential public health impacts and concerns to the decision-making process for plans, projects, and policies that fall outside the traditional public health arenas, such as local transportation and land use. HIAs help vulnerable communities reduce health costs by recommending proven public health approaches that meet their needs while offering training and technical assistance.

Over the past 50 years, the United States has made significant progress toward addressing environmental and health disparities. The work of CDC/ATSDR has contributed to that progress, and we continue to aim toward the ultimate goal of environmental justice for all.


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Page last reviewed: February 27, 2015
Page last updated: February 27, 2015