In keeping with mid-20th century segregationist federal guidance, West Oakland, California officials in the 1940s deliberately put the most polluting industries and biggest highways in Black neighborhoods – saddling them with cancer, asthma, and other health impacts. In white neighborhoods, diesel-powered trucks were banned from operating, as planners chose to divide Black communities with highways instead.
“The intentional planning of these uses … was historically racist,” Oakland Planning Commission member Jonathan Fearn told the Washington Post. “The planning profession has to reconcile that because they have been complicit in this whole issue, not only in Oakland, but in cities all across the country.”
The California Air Resources Board has taken steps to lessen the pollution burden faced by these communities through encouraging electric trucks powered by renewable energy, and electric equipment at busy ports, but health officials say the substantial buildup of pollution will continue to take a toll for decades.
“All my kids have allergies and asthma, myself too,” Margaret Gordon told the Post, while showing them the layer of dark gray pollution blanketing her West Oakland home. “It ain’t dust. It’s diesel particulates.” And at her age, it’s hard to keep clean. “I’m not getting on too many ladders at 75 years old. I know better than that.” Nonetheless, her age isn’t keeping her from cleaning up everyone’s air. As the co-founder of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, Gordon’s work since 2003 has created a block-by-block pollution monitoring for California officials enforcing a 2017 law aimed at exactly this issue. “I ain’t got but 15 more years myself,” Gordon told the Post. “If they can’t do it in 15 more years, I don’t know what to tell them.”
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