Skip to contents
Environmental Justice

How Low-Emission Vehicles are Perpetuating ‘Systemic Environmental Racism’ in Detroit

The battle over a vehicle plant in Detroit reveals the complications of the country’s shift to cleaner energy transportation.

Stellantis assembly plant in Detroit
A 2021 Jeep goes through assembly at the Stellantis Detroit Assembly Complex-Mack on June 10, 2021, in Detroit. The Stellaris plant is the first new auto assembly plant in Detroit in thirty years. (Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

When automaker Stellantis announced plans for a $1.6 billion auto production site in Detroit — the city’s first new vehicle assembly plant in three decades — local leaders welcomed the investment with open arms. The project was framed as a boon for the city’s struggling economy, bringing thousands of jobs and promising to revitalize the surrounding community. 

But since opening last year, the Jeep plant has racked up four air quality violations from Michigan’s Department of Environment. The pollution could aggravate an already grave situation: Each of the 11 census tracts surrounding the facility is in the 99th percentile for asthma rates, meaning virtually nowhere else in the country has as great of a share of residents suffering from the pollution-inflamed illness, according to the White House’s new climate and economic justice screening tool

Even the federal government has stepped in, launching a civil rights investigation by the Environmental Protection Agency to determine if Michigan racially discriminated against a poor, majority-Black community by approving an emissions permit for the new low-emission hybrid car plant.

“It’s an example of systemic environmental racism, and it’s exacerbating our community’s existing issues – asthma, allergies, and COPD – all for a few jobs,” said Rhonda Theus, a Detroit activist whose home borders the new plant. “The benefits we Detroiters get is no way compared to the adverse effects of the facility.”

The battle over the Detroit plant illuminates a troubling trend for the future of private transportation. While transitioning to electric cars will help restrict emissions from the country’s largest source of pollution – transportation – it won’t limit the dirty output from production sites. It also has the power to intensify environmental injustices in Black and brown communities.

The auto industry resurgence has been boosted by the Biden administration’s support for a swift transition to electric vehicles. But without targeted interventions to reverse legacies of racism and discrimination in the transportation sector, the shift to EVs also could harm communities of color, said Dr. Jalonne L. White-Newsome, the White House’s new top environmental justice adviser.

“We have billions of dollars at the federal level to push this shift, but it doesn’t feel thought out,” White-Newsome said in an interview before her White House appointment was announced Thursday.

White-Newsome co-authored a report that included more than 30 interviews with experts and Detroit residents on how to build an equitable transition to electric vehicles. In the case of auto production hubs like Detroit, the report urged residents and leaders to reach fair community benefits agreements with corporations seeking to locate in their neighborhoods, outlining jobs for residents, funds for health care and home improvements against air pollution, and guaranteed paths to access the benefits of electric vehicles.

Currently, acquiring electric vehicles is tough for Detroit residents and other communities of color across the country. According to a recent Washington Post investigation, access to electric vehicle charging stations largely correlates with race – in most cities where EV charging is widely available, stations are concentrated in the cities’ majority-white areas. Without public charging stations, electric car owners are left charging their vehicles at home, but Black and brown communities have outsized “energy burdens,” meaning they already spend a disproportionate amount on their energy bills.

Not to mention the price tag: In the last seven years, the average price paid for an electric car has nearly doubled from $36,000 to $63,000. 

“When facing our biggest issues like environmental justice and public health, we can not lose the fact that if our goal is to make people’s lives better, we have to be making all people’s lives better,” White-Newsome said. 

Some activists have called on the Biden administration to take a different approach to solve the country’s overlapping climate and transit struggles: moving away from a dependence on private transportation. Renard Monczunski, a transit justice organizer with Detroit People’s Platform, argues for the need for a holistic, two-pronged approach to tackle both climate and transit issues. 

Electric vehicles should be used to lower greenhouse gas emissions, Monczunski said, but not without “transformative” investment in mass transit options. This approach deviates from the government’s norms: Since 1982, starting with an agreement signed by then President Ronald Reagan, 80% of federal transportation spending has gone to highways and private transportation, and just 20% has gone to public transit. 

In Detroit, Monczunski notes, car culture and the expansion of highways have led to the devastation and displacement of many Black communities. Detroit People’s Platform has advocated for spending more government investment on public transportation and led campaigns to offer free transit fares for students and subsidized fares for Detroit’s low-income residents to reverse a legacy of transit discrimination. 

“Black people, people of color, are the most impacted individuals by climate change, and we also know they’re the least likely to have the resources to own their own cars,” he said. “If anything, emphasis needs to be put on the shift to electric vehicles, it needs to be largely focused on electric buses.”

As much as it is about creating the infrastructure for cleaner and more climate-friendly travel, Monczunski says, it also is about shifting the way people relate to and access the world around them. For years, Black people were ostracized from public transit and then, more recently, demonized and stereotyped as “poor” for using it. 

He says that reframing people’s relationships with mass transit might be the country’s best bet in alleviating the transportation sector’s emissions and cleaning up pollution in frontline communities. “We need healthier, more affordable communities built for the people, not their cars.”