By Kim Korona
As we observe and celebrate Black History Month this February, we also experience the pain felt across the nation. This should be a time to remember that Black history is American history, and that it should be included in history throughout the whole year. It should be a time to acknowledge that the structural injustices from the past to the present shape people’s lived experiences. It should be a time to pay tribute to the contributions of Black individuals and Black-led organizations that have positively influenced our culture. It should be a time to honor Black leaders who have worked tirelessly for civil rights, inclusion, and equity that uplifts our whole society and benefits us all.
However, the time to observe and celebrate Black History Month happens in the wake of yet another horrendous case of police brutality suffered by yet another young Black man, Tyre Nichols, remembered as a beloved father and son. The murder of Tyre Nichols looms over us and reminds us how far we still are from racial equality, underscoring the immediate need for systemic change as lives are literally at stake. Communities with large Black and brown populations are policed more extensively than communities with large white populations due to racial bias, leading to higher rates of incarceration of—and police brutality toward—Black and brown individuals. This inevitably contributes to psychological and financial devastation experienced by Black and brown families, which in turn harms the entire community.
Racial injustice is not only a problem within the institution of policing; it is a deep-seated issue that infiltrates all agencies and the very fabric of our lives. Until we have a true racial reckoning, racial injustice will continue to persist and cause harm to people, in turn harming animals and the environment as well.
As humane educators, we teach about the interconnections between issues facing people, animals, and the natural world. As part of the programs we provide, it is vital to teach students about historic and present-day racial injustice. If we do not recognize the historical context that has led to where we are today, we will not get to the root of the very problems we are aiming to address.
Ayo Magwood from Uprooting Inequity provides eye-opening workshops about the ways in which U.S. lawmakers created race as we know it today from the beginning of this country’s inception (after the land was stolen from the Indigenous people who resided here when the colonists invaded), instituting racialized policies to justify and legalize the enslavement of Black individuals. Magwood explains how this has been a throughline contributing to the many different ways in which racial injustice shows up today.
Throughout history when disruptors have tried to create more equity, individuals with power have found ways to circumvent these attempts as a way to maintain the status quo. As Michelle Alexander explains in her book, The New Jim Crow, as explicit segregation ceased to remain socially acceptable, lawmakers found ways to create a caste system within the criminal (in)justice system so that inequity would be tolerated. She explains that it is more difficult for people to see discrimination happening when it is experienced by someone who is criminalized and painted as a threat to society. It also becomes more challenging to organize people to fight against this injustice because most individuals do not see the racialized discrimination that has been built into the legal system, instead seeing only a system created to keep society safe. While it is important to have a system in place to provide safety, we must acknowledge the shortcomings of the system and inequity within it.
To build a more just society, we need to address not only police brutality and high rates of incarceration experienced by Black individuals, but also the inequity that Black individuals experience on a daily basis. If we care about justice for people, justice for animals, and justice for the environment, we cannot ignore the role that structural racism has contributed to these problems. We must be prepared to have these conversations with the young people we teach. As humane educators, we need to put in the work to educate ourselves about these injustices so that we understand the full extent of how the issues we teach are intertwined.
Our racialized history has led to gaping disparities in the environmental health and wellbeing experienced by Black and brown people in comparison to white people. Communities with large Black and brown populations are more likely to be subjected to environmental racism, experiencing higher rates of pollution and environmental degradation leading to health problems. This also affects the nonhuman animals who live in communities of mostly Black and brown populations. Due to racial and economic bias, when communities of mostly Black and brown populations experience environmental harm, government officials are often less quick to act than if this same problem were harming a predominantly wealthy, white neighborhood.
In her recent talk hosted by the Institute for Human-Animal Connection, Pets for Life founder Amanda Arrington explained how critical it is for animal protection advocates to understand America’s history to recognize how racial and economic injustice affects people’s lives today, which ultimately affects the lives of animal companions. People are the animal caregivers.
For example, redlining legalized housing-related discrimination permitting white communities to segregate by not selling homes to Black individuals. When the government first provided loans to increase home ownership, over 95% of those loans were given to white people. Redlining led to the racial segregation we still see in neighborhoods across the country today. This inequity in home ownership prevented Black families from being able to build generational wealth at the rate that white families could, causing communities with mostly Black residents to experience higher rates of poverty. These higher rates of poverty mean that Black individuals are more likely to live in communities that are under-resourced. This scarcity includes resources for people (e.g., fewer job opportunities, food apartheid, lack of quality health care, underfunded schools, few to no green spaces, unreliable transportation services), as well as for animal companions (e.g., lack of pet supply stores, limited availability of quality pet food, lack of veterinary services, lack of animal behavior training services).
Pets for Life works to provide low-cost or free access to these animal services to support people and their beloved companions through a model of solidarity. Animals provide comfort and companionship to their guardians, and their guardians want access to the services that their pets need.
When the lengthy history of America’s racial oppression is understood, it is clear that the challenges experienced in communities with large Black and brown populations did not originate with the individuals living in those communities. They stem from intentional harm caused by racist laws and policies, institutionalized discrimination, and implicit bias persisting over a significant length of time, creating detrimental long-term effects on the mental health and wellbeing of Black individuals. When Black individuals overcome the immense obstacles of structural racism, inequity, and oppression facing them, it is nothing short of heroic. But one should not have to be heroic to thrive in this nation.
We need to identify ways to have a true racial reckoning such as eliminating laws and policies that are based on racial bias, providing more access to services and opportunities in communities of mostly Black and brown populations, and continuing to identify ways to rectify the injustices and oppression that Black individuals have endured for far too long.
The examples of inequity detailed here represent only a few of the racial and economic disparities that are ever-present in the United States and the ways in which human justice, animal justice, and environmental justice are interconnected. In observance of Black History Month 2023, we encourage educators to take time to investigate America’s history and its repercussions more deeply, as we must fully understand where we came from to cultivate a more compassionate and equitable future where people, animals, and our environment can flourish.