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Did You Know? . . . Race & Urban Fires


Firefighters at work at the scene of a fire at a home in the Fairmount section of Philadelphia, Jan. 5, 2022. WPVI

If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. -1 Corinthians 12:26

All too often recently the news of another inner-city fire becomes national news. Is it a mere coincidence that so many of the lives, including those of children, who are tragically lost in inescapable flames and smoke, are predominantly black people? Can we blame electric space heaters and overcrowded housing, or do they point to a larger culprit?
 
Although the loss of any life is horrific, the world is especially saddened at the death of our youth. Twelve people, including nine children, died as a result of the January 5th Philadelphia townhouse fire. Among the seventeen people who perished in the January 9th Bronx fire, the deadliest fire in modern New York City history, eight were children.
 
The deadly nature of the fires in both Philadelphia and the Bronx is related to the nation’s urban planning and infrastructure decisions of the past, and even of the present, that overwhelmingly endanger a higher proportion of people of color. Long-standing housing segregation policies and practices, disadvantageous to minorities, still exist in 2022. Why? Sure, the Philadelphia fire may have been started by a faulty space heater, but this was a necessity due to inadequate heat, which, in turn, was a direct result of racial discrimination.
 
Historically, zoning laws were established to give white people a housing advantage while promoting racial segregation that forced people of color into undesirable, neglected, and unsafe housing. Because of the color of their skin and their poverty levels, these renters continue to face maintenance issues that result in greater chances of death by fire or lead poisoning. In the Bronx fire, the building’s alarm system and fire doors are being investigated. In the Philadelphia fire, reportedly only one fire extinguisher was located in the entryway of the building that lacked smoke detectors, sprinklers, or fire escapes. Why? It was built in 1972, and rules requiring these safety measures were not in place then and do not apply now to older buildings. Compliance would be voluntary on the part of the owner, which is often lacking.
 
According to Jessie Singer, author of the forthcoming book There Are No Accidents, “Racism influences almost every way to die by accident in America and it has for a long, long time.” Although black people make up about 13% of the U.S. population, they represent 25% of those killed by residential fires across the country.
 
One can only ask whether these neglected safety policies would have been upgraded long ago if those affected were middle-to upper-class white folk. The answer seems obvious.