With the recent anniversary of the March on Washington, we're reminded that the civil rights era fought racial injustice that was codified into law. White Americans carried undeniable privileges that blacks and other ethnic groups did not share. Today, however, the battle lines can be more easily drawn on a map than on a person skin. According to a series of health equity reports generated by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, place-based discrimination may replace race as the primary unit of analysis in our examinations of social progress.
One can easily argue that life expectancy is the most powerful indicator of quality of life. Therefore, an examination of life expectancy provides a new lens for measuring levels of discrimination. From the report's data, it's clear that poor neighborhood conditions limit residents' chances of achieving Dr. King's dream and the American Dream.
For instance, in New Orleans (PDF) where crime, unemployment, poverty and limited educational opportunities burden too many residents, heart disease mortality in the poorest zip code in the city is almost five times higher than the next highest rate in the city. Overall life expectancy for New Orleanians varies by as much as 25 years depending on the zip code.
In Baltimore (PDF), residents in census tracts characterized by a high density of liquor stores, vacant properties, rodent or insect-infested homes, and lead exposure have an average life expectancy that is six to nine years shorter than residents of census tracts with the lowest rates of these characteristics. Living just a few miles apart in Baltimore makes the difference in as much as 30 years of life.
In Bernadillo County, New Mexico (PDF), non-white and low-income census tracts, such as those in the downtown area, face higher concentrations of environmental health hazards such as air pollution and toxic industrial wastes than do whiter and higher-income census tracts. Consequently, life expectancy is an average of 5.2 years shorter in census tracts with the greatest concentration of environmental hazards. Residents in some Bernadillo County neighborhoods live 28 years less than other zip codes.
And in Chicago, 34 years is the difference between the communities with the highest life expectancy and the lowest. Place certainly matters when it comes to health. But, neighborhood-based discrimination seems to be the socially acceptable means to exercise our unconscious and conscious biases, and it's literally taking our lives away.
All the Joint Center's studies find that social, economic, and environmental conditions in specific neighborhoods significantly erode those residents' quality of life and longevity. Not having a car, overcrowded and blighted housing, violence, limited educational opportunities, environmental toxins and inaccessibility to fresh foods dredge an incredible hole that depresses entire neighborhoods. Multiple negative, correlating factors exist within the same geographic spaces, and each negative correlate seems to have a multiplying effect when they interact.
This does not mean that race, class, and gender are not still salient factors that impact members of those particular social groups' outcomes. Racial discriminatory practices of the past helped create the neighborhood conditions that exist today. However, the social justice community can't readily explain and prove racism, classism, and sexism in the ways that Martin Luther King did during the March on Washington fifty years ago. Also, arguing the reality that race matters can conveniently fall into trap doors of contradiction. It's simply much harder to claim racial bias as the primary prejudice during the second term of the first black President.
However, people are living shorter and lesser lives because of bias and discrimination. We simply must find the most effective mechanisms to deliver policies to change the circumstances of the suffering. The road to social justice will be paved on neighborhood streets. Individual wellness will be contingent upon our willingness to be better neighbors and to form better neighborhoods.
Some may see this data and rationalize the use of some form of "benevolent gentrification" as a means to improve neighborhoods. In fact, developers and public officials more often than not code their nefarious gentrifying ambitions with the words revitalization, renaissance, and revival. These types of "community improvement plans" only shift neighborhood neglect to other places.
We must avoid these poorly veiled attempts to discriminate against the vulnerable and eschew extreme rhetoric of individual responsibility. Residents of entire neighborhoods are not genetically disposed to live shorter lives. In fact, the most insidious dynamic about assuming that individuals are the only source of their shorter life outcomes is the abdication of our collective responsibility to be good neighbors. Strong public policy focused on our collective wellbeing provides a suitable antidote to self-centered blaming and new age redlining.
Improvement by replacement is not real development. Nor should we wait until folks get their so-called cultural acts together to bring essential services and businesses to economically depressed communities. City blocks have always divided neighborhoods, but they should never cut off a lifetime. Let's go upstream to solve our problems. Let's invest in communities—no matter who lives in them.
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Andre Perry is the Founding Dean of Urban Education at Davenport University and is the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter.