Emma Heins

February is Black History Month — a time to honor all of the society-altering contributions that black people have made in the United States and across the world. Black people have shaped the history and advancement of this nation just as much as any other racial group, yet they receive the least recognition and the shortest month of the year to highlight their contributions.

While U.S. school systems still deliver a very white, Eurocentric version of history, it is impossible to look at black history without recognizing how great the contributions to science and technology, and in particular climate science, have been.

Charles Drew was a black man that pioneered the modern blood transfusion and managed the two largest blood banks in the midst of World War II. Marie M. Daly was the first African American woman to receive a Ph.D. in chemistry in the United States. She worked closely with scientist Quentin B. Deming, and their work opened up a new understanding of how foods and diet can affect the health of the heart and the circulatory system. Warren Washington was a physicist that helped pioneer atmospheric climate modeling and advised six presidents about climate change. He received the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement — often known as the Nobel Prize for environmental scientists. And this list only names a few.

But to add to the injustice of African Americans making massive improvements in science and technology and not getting their deserved recognition, I’ll loop back to the topic of my column as a whole: climate change and its disastrous effects.

As important as it is to recognize all of the good things the black community has done in the past, we must also recognize all that we as a society must do to make America more equitable for black people.

Right now in America, the relics of slavery and Jim Crow laws have made black people less educated, in worse health and poorer than their white counterparts. Black people are far less likely to be able to have access to a hospital or insurance to cover treatment from their climate-related illnesses. This could be asthma attacks, heat strokes, injuries from intensified storms and hurricanes or infectious diseases that spread faster in warmer climates.

Black people also generally have less of a financial safety net. This stems from the systemic discrimination that has prevented accumulation of generational wealth at the same rate as white people. This means that when the doomsday prophecy climate change scenario that everyone envisions actually happens, black people will not be able to pick up and move to safer areas as quickly, leaving them more vulnerable to disease, injury and financial loss.

It’s a cruel cycle that has evolved past slavery and legalized discrimination, but it continues to trap people of color in the United States and prevent them from reaching their full potentials. Imagine how many more George Washington Carvers and Mae C. Jemisons we’d have if we supported and cared for black children the way we did white children.

So this Black History Month, do more than look at the tweets highlighting black inventors and scientists. Support black artists and creators. Amplify the work of black activists and their concerns. Read and share the research of your black peers. Vote for politicians that will work to destroy the systems that normalize the discrimination of black people. Don’t just appreciate those who have been a part of change — join them.

Emma Heins is a senior majoring in environmental studies. She can be reached at eheins@vols.utk.edu.

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