Systemic racism has consequences for all life in cities

An aerial view showing the differences in tree cover in two neighboring cities. The more affluent city of University Place, Washington (left) has more tree cover, while a neighborhood in the city of Tacoma, Washington (right) has fewer trees. The neighborhoods are about 4.5 miles apart. Photo illustration by Megan Kitagawa/UW Tacoma

Social inequalities, specifically racism and classism, are impacting the biodiversity, evolutionary shifts and ecological health of plants and animals in our cities.

That’s the main finding of a review paper led by the University of Washington, with co-authors at the University of California, Berkeley, and University of Michigan, which examined more than 170 published studies and analyzed the influence of systemic inequalities on ecology and evolution. Published Aug. 13 in Science, it calls on the scientific community to focus on environmental justice and anti-racism practices to transform biological research and conservation.

“Racism is destroying our planet, and how we treat each other is essentially structural violence against our natural world,” said lead author Christopher Schell, an assistant professor of urban ecology at the University of Washington Tacoma. “Rather than just changing the conversation about how we treat each other, this paper will hopefully change the conversation about how we treat the natural world.”

The paper cites other studies that have found racism and other inequalities are reducing biodiversity, increasing urban heat island effects and augmenting impacts of climate crises across the United States.

“I hope this paper will shine the light and create a paradigm shift in science,” Schell said. “That means fundamentally changing how researchers do their science, which questions they ask, and realizing that their usual set of questions might be incomplete.”

The authors also hope this paper paves the way for younger scientists entering the field, especially people of color, to have legitimacy in pushing for science that is centered around anti-racism and environmental justice.

“Identity matters, and creating space for researchers who aren’t straight white cis males to pursue questions that arise from their lived experiences can really strengthen science,” said co-author Cleo Woelfle-Erskine, assistant professor and social scientist in the UW School of Marine and Environmental Affairs. “I hope that scientists will read this paper and be inspired to think about representation in our labs and departments, and how that might matter for science going forward.”

Read the article, written by Michelle Ma here.