The Road to Racial Justice: Resolving the Disproportionate Health Burden Placed on Communities of Color by Highway Pollution

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Wendy Xiao is a member of the Columbia Law School class of 2021.

The ubiquity of highways and their presence in our lives belies the fact that they developed as a prominent mechanism for racial discrimination. During the development of the Interstate Highway System, government officials across the United States deliberately rammed federally funded highways through communities of color, leading to increases in crime and lack of access to goods and services. These vulnerable communities continue to feel the effects of the racially motivated placement of highways. Recent research has focused on an additional burden placed upon minority populations because of highway location—traffic-based air pollution. This pollution causes numerous lifelong physical adverse health effects in children, such as respiratory illness, cardiovascular disease, and developmental delay. It even affects cognitive functions in adults, including productivity and impulse control. The deadly effects of pollutants are highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic, as exposure to highway pollution is linked to an increased mortality rate. These health burdens are disproportionately borne by communities of color. As the adverse health effects of highway pollution and the disparate impact highway pollution has on communities of color become increasingly clear, government officials at all levels have still failed to take meaningful action in addressing this human rights and public health issue. This Note analyzes a range of existing recommendations and legislation at a federal, state, and local level. Ultimately, by examining in particular the measures against highway pollution taken in Los Angeles, New York City, and Boston, it is clear that the status quo is not sufficient to protect communities of color. Therefore, government officials must adopt a number of known community development best practices. If they fail to do so, individual citizens, empowered by the Fair Housing Act, should force action from government officials.

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