"African Americans are more likely to live near coal-fired power plants, oil and gas refining plants, [and other] energy generating facilities, and suffer the ill effects of that,” says Jacqui Patterson, senior director for the NAACP's Environmental & Climate Justice Program Credit: Creative Commons

Systemic racism and energy issues are connected in multiple ways, NAACP’s Jacqui Patterson explains.

Energy and climate have long been a part of the NAACP’s civil rights program, long before many white-led climate and environmental groups accelerated their commitments to racial equity in the wake of mass protests over the police killing of George Floyd.

Among other things, for example, the NAACP’s 2010 Climate Justice Toolkit outlines why climate change especially matters to people of color and includes renewable energy among its proposed solutions. In 2013 the organization worked with other groups to report on problems associated with proximity to coal-fired power plants. In 2017 the NAACP published a set of model just energy policies.

The Energy News Network recently talked with Jacqui Patterson, senior director for the organization’s Environmental & Climate Justice Program, to learn more about their ongoing work and the nexus between environmentalism and racial justice.

How are people of color more susceptible to pollution from fossil fuels?

“African Americans are more likely to live near coal-fired power plants, oil and gas refining plants, [and other] energy generating facilities, and suffer the ill effects of that,” Patterson said. That’s largely driven by lower incomes plus present and past patterns of housing segregation, she noted. Or, if they’re not near a power plant, they’re often near other industrial facilities that burn fossil fuels.

Black and low-income Americans are more likely to die from power plant pollution, a 2019 study by Stanford and University of Washington researchers found. A 2017 NAACP report also detailed problems with oil and gas fumes. 

Overall, Black children are more likely to be hospitalized for asthma attacks and to die from those attacks, Patterson said. 

“African American adults are more likely to have lung disease but less likely to smoke,” she added.

Do those impacts further fuel racial disparities?

“Children are less likely to be able to go to school on poor air quality days. And then when they’re in school, we have lead and other toxins that are known to interfere with learning,” Patterson said.

Proximity to facilities that burn fossil fuels also depresses property values, which are often the basis for school funding and other governmental services, she said. “All of that combines to affect educational attainment.”

How does climate change factor into things?

Burning of fossil fuels releases greenhouse gas emissions that drive human-caused climate change. African Americans “are less likely to contribute to greenhouse gas emissions,” Patterson said. “Yet we are more impacted by climate change.”

A majority of African Americans say they are already feeling effects from severe heat and extreme storms, which are becoming more frequent and erratic due to climate change, according to a March 2020 poll commissioned by the Environmental Defense Fund and Moms Clean Air Force.

How does the United States’ history of racism translate into problems that many low-income Black families face when it comes to their ability to pay electric bills?

Ancestors of most Black Americans “were brought over in the hull of a ship as cargo and stolen [away] from their land and the wealth that they had in their own nation,” Patterson said. “When you start there, and then you have a 400-year history of enslavement and then policies that are set against any type of achievement and prosperity — including redlining and employment discrimination [and other] policy discrimination — then right away you see the barriers that result in people’s economic insecurity would result in challenges in paying electric bills.”

About half of African American families reported issues linked to energy insecurity, compared to just 30% of white people as of 2015, according to a report released earlier this year by Synapse Energy Economics, the Regulatory Assistance Project and the Community Action Partnership. African Americans were also more likely to spend a higher share of their income on energy and rent, the report noted.

Are energy costs higher?

“Our homes are less energy efficient,” Patterson said, resulting in higher bills for electricity and heating.

A legacy of employment discrimination, plus redlining and other housing discrimination, means that many people of color live in older homes for which they often lack the means to make energy efficiency improvements. The energy burden of costs compared to household income is up to three times higher for low-income, African American and Latino households compared to higher-income white households, according to a 2016 report by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy and the Energy Efficiency for All coalition.

“And our homes are less disaster-resilient,” Patterson said, meaning that residents face greater risks from floods, extreme heat or other events likely to become more frequent as climate change continues.

Is there more than low income driving the problem?

“To add insult to injury … if I’m in arrears as an African American person, and someone else is in arrears as a white person, then the African American person is more likely to get their electricity cut off,” Patterson said, referring to research by energy analyst John Howat at the National Consumer Law Center. 

How does utility lobbying reinforce problems?

Utilities have spent hundreds of millions of dollars for lobbying over the past few years, Patterson said, often to shore up continued support for the fossil fuel economy.

Utility lobbying has also fueled opposition to energy efficiency standards, she said, even though the standards could help reduce the energy burden on Black and other low-income people.

Do fossil fuel interests feed into other civil rights issues?

Fossil fuel and utility companies have a history of supporting ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, Patterson noted. “And not only is ALEC’s history bad on air quality and its pushing back on clean energy policies, but ALEC has also been into everything from voter suppression, to school privatization, to prison privatization, to water privatization,” she said.

What big changes would you ideally want to see in the current utility business model?

“We shouldn’t have a profit on anything that … is essential for life, like water or energy,” Patterson said. “To me, it would be changing the whole utility business model from not making it a business, but making it a community service.”

Would you expect a lot of pushback from that idea?

“Oh, yes,” Patterson said. But as a start, she believes regulators should look more closely at what utility revenue needs really are, versus current levels of profits and high executive salaries.

“When you have people making almost $10 million a year while someone else has a house fire because they were using a candle because their electricity was shut off in a poor area, it’s just unconscionable.”

What role do you see for renewable energy?

“The bigger picture for us is to move away from fossil fuel-based energy production in the first place and more towards community ownership of this electricity,” Patterson said.

Anything else you’d like to stress?

“I just can’t say enough about how interconnected all of these issues are.”

This is Part One of a series on racial disparities and energy issues. Part Two will explore issues of energy poverty and utility disconnections.

Kathi is the author of 25 books and more than 600 articles, and writes often on science and policy issues. In addition to her journalism career, Kathi is an alumna of Harvard Law School and has spent 15 years practicing law. She is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and the National Association of Science Writers. Kathi covers the state of Ohio.