‘I Can’t Breathe:’ Race, Place, Class, and Disparities in Metropolitan Air Quality

A protester holds up his hands and wears a mask with the words
A protester holds up his hands and wears a mask with the words “I can’t breathe,” during a City Hall rally, Wednesday, Dec. 10, 2014, in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

My current research project relies on two of the most recognized rallying cries of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, “I Can’t Breathe” and “Hands Up,” to illustrate metropolitan air quality disparities and the disproportionate burden of poor air quality on communities of color and lower socioeconomic status. While numerous studies suggest that communities of color and lower socioeconomic status face greater exposure to harmful air pollutants, few studies have explored the correlation between the realities of air quality disparities and perceptions about air quality of residents in and around those communities. During summer 2012, the Kansas City metropolitan area experienced 23 Ozone Alert days, 7 times the number of alerts in the three years prior. Analyzing public awareness survey data collected in winter 2012 from over 800 metropolitan residents, this research explores disparities in perceptions of air quality conditions by race, class, and place, and compares differences to actual data from air quality monitors. In addition to statistical analyses, this study employs geographic information systems (GIS) to visualize spatial differences in air quality perceptions and realities. Preliminary results reveal that a greater percentage of minorities are highly concerned about the health impacts of poor air quality, have a household member with breathing or respiratory problems, and feel a lower sense of self efficacy that they can do anything to improve air quality in their community.

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