"The convention wisdom is that, due to greater concerns about jobs, crime, education and other 'survival' issues, Black Americans are unconcerned about the environment," says Paul Mohai, associate professor at the U-M School of Natural Resources and Environment. "This study provides clear evidence that the conventional wisdom is wrong."
For the study, to be published in a forthcoming issue of Public Opinion Quarterly, Mohai and U-M colleague Bunyan Bryant surveyed 793 people to identify systematic differences in environmental concerns. They also assessed local environmental conditions in Black and white neighborhoods. "We wanted to examine the effect of local environmental quality on people's attitudes," Mohai says.
While all those surveyed lived in the Detroit metropolitan area, the findings are likely to be representative of the attitudes of Blacks and whites in metro areas across the country, according to Mohai.
Among the key findings: 77 percent of Blacks and 70 percent of whites identified pollution as one of the most important problems facing the country, with concerns about air pollution leading the list for both races.
About 80 percent of Blacks and more than 60 percent of whites identified air pollution as a very serious problem, with 78 percent of Blacks and 54 percent of whites saying that pollution of drinking water was also a very serious problem.
Blacks expressed significantly greater concern than whites about their local environment. According to Mohai, this higher level of concern correlates with the poorer environmental quality found in Black neighborhoods. Neighborhood environmental problems, such as high noise levels, abandoned houses, trash, litter, rats, roaches or other pests were cited as very serious problems by 15 percent of Blacks surveyed and 7 percent of whites.
Blacks were significantly more likely than whites to rate as "poor" or "very poor" the quality of their local air (40 percent vs. 12 percent) and drinking water (38 percent vs. 7 percent).
Blacks were significantly more likely than whites to live within a mile and a half of an uncontrolled hazardous waste site (74 percent vs. 54 percent) or a polluting industrial facility (73 percent vs. 50 percent).
In contrast, only 4 percent of Blacks, compared with 20 percent of whites, said that global issues, such as acid rain, ozone depletion, and global warming, were one of the most important environmental problems facing the nation.
On issues involving nature preservation, including oil spills and the loss of wildlife habitats, Mohai and Bryant found no statistically significant difference between Blacks and whites, with more than half considering these issues a very serious environmental problem.
"Environmental issues are not luxury issues to Black Americans," says Mohai. "Survey results such as these and a growing grassroots environmental justice movement demonstrate that environmental quality issues may, in fact, be viewed as survival issues."