We, as a Nation, Are Failing Black Children: A Call to Action
By Jacqui Patterson and Nsedu Obot Witherspoon
We are mamas, aunties, and sisters. We are public health practitioners, racial justice activists, and social justice champions. And we are raising the alarm about the plight of Black children in these United States. To this end, today, we announce the release of, The Racism that Upends the Cradle: How Black Children Are Differentially Vulnerable to Impacts of the Syndemic — The Economic Crisis, Covid 19 Pandemic, and Climate Change, which can be found on the Children’s Environmental Health Network website and The Chisholm Legacy Project website.
The jarring metaphor and graphic imagery of the title are intentional. Too many Black children are literally, figuratively, and systemically denied access to the safety of the cushioned cradle (that so many take for granted) throughout their life cycle, if they are blessed to survive the gauntlet that is being Black in America.
In this report, we share the story of a Black girl in Georgia whose health, family stress, and future career path were all impacted by vehicle air pollution she endured throughout childhood. We tell the tale of a Black boy in Louisiana who experiences serious respiratory attacks due to a polluting chemical plant near his childcare facility. We highlight the reality of a Black family in Michigan whose concerns about lead exposures from the older home they lived in, and drinking water they relied on, were tragically validated when their three-year old daughter and newborn were both diagnosed with lead poisoning. We mourn the tragic loss of a New York mother and her baby who never had the experience of life outside of her mother’s womb.
We detail heartbreaking statistics that represent the lived realities of millions of Black children across the nation, in the pattern of the illustrative stories above. For example: getting enough to eat is a constant struggle for 1 in 4 Black American children; Black children are four times more likely to be hospitalized — and ten times more likely to die — from asthma; the promise of economic mobility in the U.S. is rarely extended to Black children; and Black children are frequently confined to restrictive and limiting academic paths.
In this report, we describe how racist policies and practices — including redlining, the placement of hazardous waste facilities, intentional disinvestment in affordable housing and rental assistance programs, and systemic exclusion from shared resources — allow these statistics, patterns, and stories to proliferate.
In our work with frontline communities, there is universal recognition that we cannot tweak a system that is fundamentally racist. In sum, the system is not broken. It is doing exactly what it was designed to do: concentrate wealth and power in corporate and white hands. This is the reality of a white supremacist system.
As such, frontline communities and populations are calling for a Just Transition. We call for systems change. This means shifting from a society and economy that is rooted in extraction, exploitation, militarism, and the enclosure of wealth and power, to one that centers regeneration, cooperation, caring for the sacred, and deep democracy.
And in local economies nationwide, Just Transition is already happening. In this report, we share recommendations based on the many examples of living economies. For example, we can transform food, water, energy, education, and economic systems to ensure that all children have access, and that human rights are centered in all. In this way, we can create a natural range of protection and well-being for all communities.
We owe it to Black children and other marginalized populations to follow in the footsteps of grassroots leadership. We must advance the Just Transition at scale. As we learned from the relationship between the civil rights movement and women’s suffrage, when we solve for what impacts those on the furthest margins, we improve conditions for all. As such, when we have a living economy, we all win. Despite the false narrative of scarcity, pedaled by those seeking to maintain the status quo by pitting us against each other, the reality is that of abundance. We must embrace systems that enable us to all share the abundance and thrive together.
Together, we can ensure that every child has a safe and secure cradle, literally and figuratively, throughout their childhood and beyond. This is not only possible, but necessary. Our society’s children of today and tomorrow are dependent on our success.
Jacqueline Patterson, MSW, MPH, is the Founder and Executive Director of the Chisholm Legacy Project: A Resource Hub for Black Frontline Climate Justice Leadership. The mission of the Chisholm Legacy Project is rooted in a Just Transition Framework, serving as a vehicle to connect Black communities on the frontlines of climate justice with the resources to actualize visions. Prior to the launch of the Chisholm Legacy Project, Patterson served as the Senior Director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program for over a decade. Patterson holds a Master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Maryland and a Master’s degree in Public Health from Johns Hopkins University.
Nsedu Obot Witherspoon, MPH, serves as the Executive Director for the Children’s Environmental Health Network (CEHN), where her responsibilities include successfully organizing, leading, and managing policy, education/training, and science-related programs to protect children’s health and the environment. For the past 21 years, she has served as a key spokesperson for children’s vulnerabilities and the need for their protection, conducting presentations and lectures across the country and envisioning a future for all children that is safer, healthier, and more equitable. Witherspoon has a B.S. in Biology Pre Med from Siena College and a M.P.H. in Maternal and Child Health from The George Washington University, School of Public Health and Health Services. She is a proud mom to four children!