February 15, 2021 - Podcast

Episode 91—Black History Month, and lead

In 1925, the historian Carter G. Woodson, known as the Father of Black History, announced Negro History Week to commemorate the contributions of Black Americans in the United States. Decades later, the U.S. celebrates Black History Month during the month of February to highlight the plight of Black Americans and commemorate their achievements. Over the years, there has been much to celebrate such as Black abolitionists like Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and Frederik Douglas and modern-day heroines like Stacey Abrams, Helen Butler, and Tameika Atkins. Grassroots movements, such as Black Lives Matter, have worked tirelessly to eliminate injustices perpetuated against Black bodies. These collective contributions have led us to Kamala Harris, the second Black woman to be elected to the U.S. Senate, being elected as the first Black U.S. vice president. However, Roxy Lawrence, a member of IU’s Center for Research on Inclusion and Social Policy, says while it is pivotal to honor the Black men and women who have fought tirelessly, it is equally important to acknowledge that pervasive anti-Blackness, racial inequity, and social injustice continue to devastate and decimate Black lives and Black communities in this country. Lawrence says while the nation might not be plagued by slavery or Jim Crow laws, issues such as police brutality and disproportionate incarceration of Black men still persists. Historically, laws—such as drug laws—have targeted Black communities. Other issues like housing discrimination and gentrification prevent Black Americans from living in certain neighborhoods, and redlining and discriminatory lending practices have converged to keep Black communities segregated. These concerted efforts to segregate Black communities have also led to severe educational disparities. Lawrence says the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has further illustrated how racial disparities continue to exist. For example, Lawrence says research at her center found that Black citizens in Indiana have disproportionately high infection and death rates. Additionally, research has shown that, when compared to white Americans, Black Americans have lower levels of insurance coverage, are less likely to receive high-quality physician care, and have poorer health outcomes. So, as the nation honors Black History Month, Lawrence says the month embodies both Black pride, excellence, and resilience, but also pain, suffering, and exhaustion. Our history and present are not mutually exclusive, but rather interconnected, Lawrence says, and elevating social disparities and inequities through research that includes the voices of Black people afflicted by injustices is crucial. Lawrence says that the work of centers like her own can help to collectively challenge institutional racism and rebuild institutions that serve all people, regardless of racial or ethnic background.

In other news, many people are familiar with the Flint water crisis which exposed thousands of Flint residents to dangerous levels of lead. Since then, more cities have faced similar problems, including Indianapolis, an issue recently pointed out by IU professor Gabriel Filippelli. And drinking water isn’t the only source of dangerous lead contamination. The soil around houses and the dust inside homes can harbor dangerously high levels of lead. According to the CDC, there is no level of lead exposure that can be considered safe for children. Lead exposure in children can damage the brain and nervous system, cause developmental delays, learning challenges, behavioral issues, and hearing loss. Additionally, lead poisoning can cause high blood pressure, kidney damage, brain damage, miscarriage, and infertility in adults. While Filippelli praises part of recent revisions by the Environmental Protection Agency that protect children from lead in their water, he says there is still more work to be done. The revisions do not help with lead service lines in the water supply systems of nearly all of the older areas of cities around the country, the exact situation that led to the issues in Flint and other places throughout the U.S. Filippelli says these service lines were installed before the widespread awareness of the hazards of lead exposure and the impacts that this exposure has on the neurological development of children. And these service line systems have failed spectacularly in the recent past. To really make an impact, Filippelli says states should create their own, stricter environmental regulations. In Indiana, Filippelli points out that while many older cities and towns have lead service lines, no one knows where most of them are. To that end, he is leading a project to map urban lead exposures and is making his findings available to the public as part of a citizen-science project. Filippelli says the state of Indiana should adopt a rule that prioritizes finding and replacing older lead water systems. Additionally, states such as Indiana should find creative ways to fund lead pipe-sleuthing efforts.