Jewish teachings about environmental stewardship emphasize our responsibility to protect Creation for future generations. In the Garden of Eden, God instructs Adam and Eve: “Take care not to spoil or destroy My world, for if you do, there will be no one to repair it after you” (Midrash Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13). Although Judaism frames our responsibility to care for the planet in forward-looking terms, our commitment to environmental protection demands that we look backwards, too. The concept of teshuvah requires that we consider the connection between historic injustices and who bears the burdens of environmental harm.
In North America, people of color are disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards and lack equal access to environmental benefits. This concept, known as environmental injustice, was first articulated by grassroots leaders of color in the 1980s. As the white-led, mainstream environmental movement focused on the degradation of nature, people of color organized around the environmental harms affecting their own communities: the contaminated water they drank, the polluted air they breathed, and the toxic waste sites in their neighborhoods.
The concentration of environmental harms in communities of color is the product of centuries of systemic racism, including a New Deal-era policy called redlining. During the Great Depression, the federal government established the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) to provide emergency relief and support homeownership. HOLC created “residential security maps” to determine the supposed “riskiness” of lending in any given neighborhood, explicitly basing its designations on race rather than proof of credit-worthiness. HOLC mapped white neighborhoods in green, labeling them safe investments, and Black neighborhoods in red, deeming them unsuitable borrowers.
Federal disinvestment from Black communities drove down property values, making these neighborhoods more attractive to projects that required a lot of cheap land—like highways and industrial sites, which are made with heat-absorbing asphalt and concrete. Decades later, in a warming world, communities of color are suffering the consequences. Formerly redlined neighborhoods are an average of five degrees Fahrenheit warmer than non-redlined neighborhoods within the same metropolitan areas. Meanwhile, green-rated neighborhoods enjoy the benefits of denser tree canopy, which provides shade and cools down streets.
Redlining bears significant responsibility for the racially inequitable impact of climate change. To address the intersecting crises of climate change and systemic racism, our country must collectively repent and make amends for the sin of redlining. For those of us who benefit from policies that subsidized white wealth-building and left Black families behind, we must do our own personal teshuvah, acknowledge our complicity in an unjust system, and work to repair its ongoing harms.
Courtney Cooperman is a 2020-2021 Eisendrath Legislative Assistant at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Her policy portfolio includes environmental and climate justice, economic justice and labor issues, reproductive rights, hate crimes and international religious freedom. She studied political science at Stanford University, where she wrote an honors thesis on homelessness as an obstacle to political participation. Originally from New Jersey, she currently resides in Washington, D.C.
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