This Week in Social Justice: Indigenous Death Schools & Climate Change's Lethal Impact on Minority Communities

Posted by News Beat on July 04, 2021  •  16 min read
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Another 182 unmarked graves of Indigenous children discovered on the grounds of a Canadian residential school run by the Catholic Church. An unprecedented, deadly, so-called 'Heat Dome' of record-breaking temperatures roasting the Northwest—a region so unused to intense heat that many don't even have A/C units. An incredibly disturbing report revealing that a dismal percentage of U.S. high school students recognizes slavery as the cause for the Civil War.

These are just some of the critically important topics the News Beat Podcast crew tackled on the June 30 installment of our acclaimed weekly livestream 'This Week In Social Justice,' along with so much more.

Joining the team to share his expert insights into the rising temperatures and their lethal and disproportionate impact on Black and Brown communities was Vivek Shandas, professor of urban studies and planning at Portland State University, and a former guest on our incendiary episode 'Redlining & Climate Change: A Deadly Combination.' 

Shandas, livestreaming from Portland during the Biblical heat—which claimed the lives of dozens across the state, with the death toll still rising—shared his observations walking the roasting neighborhoods. Using an infrared camera, he monitored the actual heat signatures—reporting some areas reached a scorching 124 and even 137 degrees Fahrenheit (!!!) in low-income communities. 

Yup—137 freakin degrees! That's lethal for a human, and as Manny soon thereafter points out—you can also literally cook a pork chop on the sidewalk in that searing heat. Horrific, to say the least.

"It is one of those classic, kind of natural disasters, that collide with social marginalization," he tells us. "And we've seen that now, in many different respects."

Shandas discussed the findings of his landmark study exposing how the ever-rising climate inferno and racist housing policies of the 1930s, called 'redlining,' have trapped communities of color across the United States in urban 'heat islands,' essentially cooking them alive. He shared his personal experience of how he and his family survived the grueling heat, explained shortcomings of the National Weather Service's reported temperatures, the double-edged sword of A/C units, suggested several necessary steps and solutions to help such communities cope, and much more.

Below are several passages from his extraordinary interview, edited for clarity.

NEWS BEAT PODCAST: We're honored to have you back on the show. Thanks so much for joining us again. So professor, we're on the East Coast, and our viewers and listeners are spread out across the country. Can you just talk about what you're currently experiencing in Portland, or have been experiencing during the last few weeks?

PROF. VIVEK SHANDAS: "Sure, happy to be here. Thanks for the invitation.

"Yeah, you know, it's been—when I looked about a week ago at my phone and saw the numbers in 111, 112—my mind, it first went right to the fact that we are so not prepared for this, like this is a classic pandemic experience, where we had, you know, folks saying almost a decade ago, ‘We need to have better pandemic surveillance, we need better systems in place to be able to ensure that we are able to develop vaccines quickly and distribute them quickly.’ And so it's very similar. We see a heat wave coming in, we're all kind of scrambling to try to figure out what to do. In fact, what's interesting, is we—even in my own household, we didn't have air conditioning or anything like that, I hadn't really seen a need for it. And then when we saw this 111 coming up, we were like, oh, my goodness, we have little ones in the community, we have not many people in the neighborhood that actually have A/C, so we ended up getting a portable A/C unit for our bedroom. And we actually, several of us huddled up in there, because it was the only place we could be. And neighbors and others were coming over, because they didn't have A/C, either. So we were just kind of hunkering down for a few days, it was pretty rough. 

"And I will just say, that as a researcher in this—I have this little infrared camera that I'm able to put into my phone, and I went around taking photos, which I'm happy to share of what the city looked like during 111, 115 degrees. And the official rate, by the way, was 115. And we have sensitive temperature gauges and thermometers that we went around the city with, and we actually clocked some neighborhoods at 124. Like, wow, it's unparalleled, the level of heat, and unprecedented level of heat. 

"And of course, those neighborhoods were the neighborhoods I've been watching for a really long time. Those are lower-income neighborhoods: Black, African American, Latino, Indigenous, people of color living predominantly in the neighborhoods. And it is one of those classic, kind of natural disasters, that collide with social marginalization. And we've seen that now, in many different respects. The pandemic, you know, of course, was a very clear, revealing that—but with this infrared camera, I drove around, took some photos, walked a little bit, and actually took some photos of some camp, some house-less folks who are living in these tents along a major roadway, and I took a photo of just these tents, there. And those were coming in at about 137 degrees Fahrenheit, which as you might know, is lethal for human health. And thinking that people are living in those kind of environments. And seeing their kind of silhouettes in the tents. I knew there were folks inside there, it really was kind of heart-wrenching to think how difficult it must be. And many of the deaths that are being identified are likely going to be folks who don't have access to cooling resources. So it's been rough. It's been really, really rough, because we're just all scrambling and unable to cope with it."


NEWS BEAT: Now, professor, in the episode about climate change and redlining you did with us, you discussed your landmark study into how the growing temperatures are disproportionately impacting communities of color due to the racist housing policy called redlining. Now, in a way, you're almost living out this these last couple days. So I was wonder if you could talk a little bit about that study, and some of its major findings.

SHANDAS: "Sure. You know, it's interesting, I live in a formerly redlined neighborhood. And so the study has become even more pronounced because of this particular heatwave. And what's really interesting to me is that we were in this study, just trying to tease out why we were seeing this consistent pattern across the country of lower-income people of color living in neighborhoods that were warmer by measured and empirically validated, then the other neighborhoods that were wealthier, often lighter, and we were seeing that pattern. And a lot of folks were, you know, saying that this might have to do with various reasons related to the luxury effect: people having more money, being able to pay more for landscaping around their house, their street, etc. But we wanted to really question that and ask whether this is a more systemic thing, and rather than an individual decision being made, we wanted to see Is this pattern consistent across the country? 

"So we looked at 108 cities across the country, used satellite imagery to evaluate how hot specific neighborhoods were. And we used these maps that were done by the University of Richmond, digitized maps of historic redlining, where we'd have A, B, C, and D neighborhoods, neighborhoods being quote ‘the best from a risk point of view,’ like can we provide a mortgage? Can those, will those mortgages be repaid? Nothing factual about this, this was all race-based, it was all based on who lived there, that whether they were white and wealthy, they were often considered the best neighborhoods. B was definitely what D was still desirable, C neighborhoods, as they were graded, were declining neighborhoods, and D were quote, ‘hazardous’ neighborhoods. And it was mostly immigrant, low-income, and communities of color that were living in those D-graded neighborhoods. And we found consistently across the country in the cities that we studied, that the D and C neighborhoods were on the order of about seven degrees Fahrenheit warmer than their non-red lined counterparts. 

"So the red lining is about the hazardous—drawing red lines around specific neighborhoods that were deemed hazardous. And that's where the term comes from. The C and D neighborhoods were consistently hotter than in A neighborhoods. And so we looked a little further, and saw that, of course, the C and D neighborhoods have more freeways through them, have more big box stores, have more industrial facilities immediately next to them. And so all of those things attract or absorb the sun's solar radiation, push it back out. And these neighborhoods really take on a lot of that heat. And we're consistently finding those neighborhoods hotter and less treed, and communities of color living still in those neighborhoods, intergenerationally. And so that really gave us pause about the fact that this is not something of an individual decision about landscaping, or this or that, it's actually a systemic thing that was promulgated by the federal government and pushed onto local communities, and still endures today. And so that's just a quick 30-second summary of that paper."


NEWS BEAT: I want to go back to something that you mentioned in your previous response, this idea that you had to go out and buy an A/C unit. Can you explain to people how unusual it is for people in your area in Oregon, out the in the Pacific Northwest, to actually have A/Cs in their homes, and why that is, because of the climate? And on top of that, can you just talk about how not having maybe the means to get an A/C unit could potentially lead to a public health crisis, or deaths in these areas?

SHANDAS: "Yeah, I will first just reference the Indigenous communities that have been living here. And in fact, the Indigenous communities—there's evidence that it's one of the highest densities of Indigenous tribes of any part of North America, living in the Pacific Northwest. And there's a reason for that. I mean, the streams are chock full of salmon, before the big turbines and lots of dams had been put in, the landscape is lush, it doesn't get really below 30 degrees Fahrenheit, doesn't get above 90 degrees, very often. It's really this kind of sweet spot temperate zone. And what we're seeing with that turning up of temperatures, is that the ecology that sustains large populations are being affected. And the building that we're putting in, has no code or regulations to be responsive to rising temperatures. And so the building stock that we put in now and continue to put in are all essentially amplifying these temperatures. And so when you get denser neighborhoods, which are really helpful for getting access to goods and services and these dense communities, we're not building those with heat in mind. 

"And so where a lot of high-density development goes is also where a lot of lower-income renters live, and those -areas are hotter. And on top of that, A/C units are really cheap. Where even 10 years ago, when we looked at the data, there was only about 30% of the households in Portland that had A/C units. If you take it to Seattle, it was only about 15 to 20% of households. Now, since 2012, we've seen this kind of uptick in the number of A/C units, central A/C units, mostly going into new developments, newer, wealthier developments, higher-end developments with the central A/C units. And so now we're up to about 56 to 60% A/C, central A/C in Portland. 

"And so we're seeing this rise in the amount of A/C in Portland—it hasn't quite kept up like that in Seattle or Vancouver, British Columbia. And that gets us into the fact that I could go on—somebody who has a day job has a position that allows me to go and purchase an A/C unit, run the A/C unit, even in one specific room. And an A/C—those of you, those listeners that don't know, A/C is one of the biggest energy hogs that you could get. You could get a bunch of freezers, you could get a bunch of refrigerators, you could get a bunch of toasters, and TVs, but you're not going to be running as much as an A/C. It's very energy-intensive, and you see that hit on your energy bill, when you get it at the end of the month, you'll see how much it demands. 

"And so a lot of communities can't afford to let alone buy an A/C, places like New York City, and other counties gave away A/Cs last summer because they were closing cooling centers and things like that, yet being without energy-efficiency credits, or any programs, running an A/C is really expensive. And so being able to get access to an A/C unit, and the historic temperate climates here, we're just not prepared.

"And therefore, getting thinking about A/C has been really kind of a big leap of like, Wow, are we there yet? Yes, we're definitely there. This was a wake-up call. And most stores I went to were flush out of A/Cs. And so even trying to get one if you could get one they’re on back order, right. And so we really endured this the best way we could. And I really worried about the neighbors and folks who are older, pre-existing health conditions, those who have had COVID—we're seeing some evidence that those who've had COVID are being disproportionately affected by heat, as well. And so there's some really interesting and important concerning factors that play into the vulnerability of communities when it comes to heat. And A/C is one immediate, like solution, but it's definitely not a long-term one."


NEWS BEAT: Wow. So you just went into great detail about these neighborhoods in these areas that aren't used to such heat. And I want to bring it back a little bit to the redlining and your report. And you talk about these urban heat islands. And something that's always sort of haunted me since our last conversation, was that, that second wave you described, that when at night, when everyone thinks, 'Oh, okay, it's great, leave the windows open, it'll get a lot cooler.' But in these particular neighborhoods, the heat actually rises, right? And it essentially slowly chokes these people to death.

SHANDAS: "Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, the most, I think, pernicious and concerning aspect of this is the fact that when you see a weather forecast, and I saw those being there—although everyone around here is paying very close to them, as well as many other parts of the world and country—you see that weather forecast, and it's one number for a city. And what is really misleading about the way the National Weather Service presents, that is the overall average for that region. And it takes agency away from the fact that Mother Nature, yes, is putting some heat upon us. Though, what it doesn't necessarily convey is that when you look at it with greater detail in these redlined areas in these non-redlined areas, you start seeing differences within one metro region, within one neighborhood, and within one city street. 

"And when we start seeing those differences, and we ask that profound question of ‘Why do we see those differences?’ It allows us to get a little bit of agency about the fact that we actually can ameliorate some of those intense effects of heat on our neighborhoods, on our communities, on our vulnerable populations. And when you get this one monolithic number of a temperature reading, it kind of absorbs all of that from being something we can directly change. 

"And so the the most hopeful thing that I could say about the fact that we're getting better data about where the hottest places are, its relation to historic planning policies and segregation, and racial covenants that have been put in that have removed green spaces have created denser materials have created more heat-absorbing materials, more larger surfaces that can absorb materials in these redlined neighborhoods. That has given us a little bit of pause of saying, ‘Hey, wait, we did this through our decision-making systems, and similarly we can undo these through our decision-making systems.’ So the challenge now is to be able to get enough of the momentum amongst the communities, among the decision-makers, amongst the vast organizations.

"I work in this to recognize that difference, and heat is totally self-induced, and that the 124 degree Fahrenheit temperature I recorded yesterday, and day before yesterday, it can be actually brought down to about 95 degrees, which is another neighborhood—on the same day when we were going out and collecting temperatures. I mean, that difference is all human-induced. And it's a difference of life and death when you're talking about that range of temperature, if you have a vulnerable person in a 95-degree neighborhood versus 120-degree neighborhood. Huge difference and big impact."


NEWS BEAT: Perfect. Thank you for your time, we have one last question, if you don't mind. And you mentioned immediate solutions, such as A/Cs, and if you've ever looked at the affordability once you run them. You're an urban planning expert. What do you envision for the future of your city going forward? What has to be done to really change the game, in terms of what's happening with the climate?

SHANDAS: "Yeah, you know, we can do the short-term, medium-term stuff, like, let's plant the trees, let's get green spaces in there, let's get communities to co-own those and govern those. Let's really do it from a ground-up perspective. And let's get the paints on there. Let's get the lighter-colored rooftop, so they can bounce the solar radiation off, let's get the orientation and the configuration of the buildings so that they better allow air to move between them and that convective current, to really reduce the surface temperatures of building materials. Let's do all that stuff. 

"In the short term, let's create block parties so that people could get to know each other, and perhaps, even those who might be vulnerable on your street during a heatwave, and check in on them during these heatwaves. Let's do all those things. 

"What I'm keenly interested in are two things in the long term: One is to get all the codes and regulations and standards for designing our cities to really recognize that heat is a serious and tragic, yet preventable, natural hazard. And that is something we haven't done in any city in the U.S.—and something that can be done just directly through local codes and local governance. 

"So getting those new buildings, getting those retrofit buildings to be more heat-sensitive and heat-smart, I guess, would be the means by which we can move that. And that's not going to happen unless we get the second part, which is FEMA, recognizing that heat is a natural hazard. You know, we have explosions as a natural hazard for FEMA. We have human-caused [disasters] as another category of incident for FEMA. We have of course hurricanes, typhoons, hurricanes, tornadoes, but heat is not in there, nor is the pandemic, but heat is another thing we need to be able to get resources to local agencies, so that they can do the good work of preparing and reducing the excess money."

Prof. Vivek Shandas joined us for the 'This Week in Social Justice' livestream on Wednesday, June 30. We typically rock the videowaves every Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET via News Beat podcast's Facebook, YouTube and Twitch pages.

Among other issues we discussed:

  • Only a mere (and horribly disturbing) 8 percent of U.S. high school seniors recognize slavery as the central cause of the civil war, according tonew report published by the Teaching Tolerance Project of the nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center.
  • Trustees at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill approved tenure for Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, capping weeks of tension that began when a board member halted the process over questions about her teaching credentials.
  • Another First Nation reported the discovery of 182 unmarked graves near the site of a former residential school, St. Eugene’s Mission School, in Canada. The grim finding was the third in about as many weeks, bringing the total number of unmarked graves detected to about 1,150—with likely many more to come. The News Beat team discussed this recent discovery, as well as the horrific legacy of these torture camps in Canada and elsewhere, at the top of the show.

Team News Beat will continue to cover the aforementioned social justice stories, and many, many more.

Listen and subscribe for FREE to News Beat podcast on your favorite pod app, and sign up for our newsletter. 


Subscribe, rate and review us wherever you listen to podcastsApple, Spotify, Stitcher—and visit USNewsBeat.com for previous episodes, extended guest and artist bios, and much, much more. 

For more, watch the full episode of 'This Week In Social Justice' featuring Vivek Shandas, professor of urban studies and planning at Portland State University.


Topics: Climate crisis, Indigenous Rights

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