Environmental Justice and Racism: What You Need to Know
Updated: Aug 15
I have been a little MIA recently. I took a break from my normal posting across social media and my blog, and fully absorbed all that has been going on around me. I checked in with myself and my subconscious, reflected, and sat in some pretty uncomfortable truths. These truths are ugly and hard to digest — the truth of the history of injustice in the country I was born into and the innate privilege my skin gives me. These truths I have often been blind to...and that’s the thing about privilege, you’re often blind to it. Like many, I have been trying to better educate myself and better understand ways in which I can be a better white ally to my black brothers and sisters. I have realized that, by sitting and not actively using my voice, I have been a part of the problem. I endeavor to change that going forward.
I use this platform to better educate others on sustainability and ways to live a more healthy and happy life. Yet, I have neglected to discuss how people of color are often marginalized in the context of environmental issues. This MUST change. People of color bear a large percentage of the burden of the effects of the degradation of the environment and climate change. I realize that we can’t talk about sustainability without talking about race. This post will be a longer read but I ask you to please keep reading, and to educate yourself beyond this post as I'm only scratching the surface of the environmental injustice that POC face. I ask you to seek to understand, sit in your discomfort, and read this with an open heart. We can’t continue to talk about environmental issues without talking about environmental justice.
Environmental Justice and Racism
Environmental justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies (EPA). As it stands, low-income, communities of color are disproportionately exposed to pollution and its resulting effects on health and environment. There are unequal environmental protection and environmental quality provided through laws, regulations, governmental programs, enforcement, and policies for these communities. Further, environmental racism, which is racial discrimination in the development and implementation of environmental policy (Oxford), is very much present in our society today. Some examples of this unequal representation in environmental policy making is as follows:
Planning boards and commissions are primarily composed of white individuals
Minorities are not well represented in decision making bodies
Systematic and institutionalized oppression and repression of racial minority voices
Other examples of environmental racism include:
Locating landfills, trash incinerators, coal plants, toxic waste facilities, and polluting factories in poor communities of color
Before I get into more examples of environmental justice and racism, I think it is important to understand the history behind the environmental justice movement in the United States.
History of the Environmental Justice Movement
The environmental justice movement addresses a statistical fact: People who live, work, and play in America's most polluted environments are commonly people of color and the poor. Yet, it took nearly 20 years for this movement to be recognized after the mainstream environmental movement first began in the United States.
The mainstream environmental movement began in the 1960s and shed light on the dangers posed by pollution and environmental degradation on ecosystem and human health. However, it was not generally acknowledged that these impacts were socially differentiated or impacted communities differently (in a predictable pattern based on race and income) until the 1980s.
The major event that sparked the environmental justice movement was in 1982, in Warren County, North Carolina. This community was a small, predominantly black community which was designated to host a hazardous waste landfill. This landfill would accept PCB-contaminated soil that resulted from illegal dumping of toxic waste along North Carolina roadways. As background, PCB is a chemical that is known to cause birth defects, liver and skin disorders, and cancer. It binds strongly to soil and sediment making it persistent in the environment; its production and use has since been banned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Despite the community’s protest, the state of North Carolina ultimately settled on this community and dumped thousands of tons of contaminated soil into an improperly built and managed landfill, and, as a consequence, leaked toxic runoff into the communities within Warren county. In 1991, the principles of environmental justice were established at the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit. Following this, in 1994, President Clinton signed Executive Order 12898, which created mainstream awareness of the environmental justice movement.
It took nearly 20 years after the beginning of the mainstream environmental movement in the U.S. for the concept of environmental justice to gain nationwide attention, and nearly 30 years for environmental justice to be acknowledged as having a space within the environmental movement in the United States.
Facts on Environmental Justice and Racism within the United States
It must be acknowledged that race is the biggest indicator in the U.S. of whether you live near toxic waste. Here are some facts that provide just a snippet of the environmental justice issues that communities of color across the country face every day.
Hazardous waste sites, landfills, and industrial plants are most often located in communities of color. More than half of the people who live within 1.86 miles of toxic waste facilities in the U.S. are people of color. Further, people of color are nearly twice as likely as white residents to live within a fence line zone of an industrial facility. These waste sites and facilities contribute to air and water pollution, as well as a host of health concerns, decreasing the quality of life for individuals living in these areas.
Communities of color have higher exposure rates to air pollution than their white, non-Hispanic counterparts. As a result, black Americans are three times more likely to die from exposure to air pollutants than their white counterparts.
Climate change disproportionately affects low-income communities and communities of color. People of color are disproportionately affected by heat waves, wildfires, storms, and other natural disasters. The relief efforts In the aftermath of such disasters are often inadequate for communities of color and low-income communities compared to efforts to rebuild higher-income and white communities. This was seen in the communities of color in New Orleans that were affected by Hurricane Katrina. Black homeowners received $8,000 less in government aid than white homeowners due to disparities in housing values.
Communities of color and low-income areas have less access to clean drinking water. There are many documented studies on the limited access to clean water in low-income communities of color. A recent study found a disturbing relationship between socio-demographic characteristics—especially race—and drinking water violations. Further, water contamination has largely affected children of color who live in rural areas, indigenous communities, and migrant farm worker communities. Contaminated water can cause many serious health-related issues, particularly for young children.
Minority communities are more likely to face food deserts. Food deserts are areas in which residents have no access or severely limited regular access to healthy and affordable food due to the absence of grocery stores within a convenient traveling distance. African Americans are half as likely to have access to chain supermarkets. Further, area-specific studies have found that minority communities are more likely to have smaller grocery stores carrying higher priced, less varied food products than other neighborhoods.
Minority and low income communities have less access to green spaces. Due to uneven distribution patterns, minority and low income communities have far less access to green spaces than white, affluent communities and have limited resources to maintain the green spaces they do have.
Examples of Environmental Justice Cases in the United States
Currently, there are thousands of cases of state-sanctioned environmental harm affecting communities of color in the U.S. Here are just a few that have drawn national attention:
What We Can Do: Resources to Help Us Take Action
This link will take you to a Google document filled with many helpful resources, such as a list of petitions you can sign, organizations to donate to, contact information for elected officials, educational resources, and more. I urge you take a good look at the resources provided. There's so much to be done! Sign as many petitions as you can; contact as many elected officials as you can to demand justice for the lives lost to racial violence; engage in peaceful protests; donate as much as you can; and digest the educational resources to better understand the racial inequality and injustice that plague the United States.
Here is another great resource that provides an open-sourced library focused on education (including the intersection of sustainability and race), advocacy, and action.
In addition, here's a list of a few of my favorite Instagram accounts that raise awareness around environmental justice, to follow:
This is a movement, not a moment. Once the news cycle starts to move on, it is up to us to continue the dialogue around racism. We must pledge to continue a lifetime of learning and educating. A lifetime of uncomfortable conversations. A lifetime of standing up, speaking out and using our voices to demand justice and change.
We must recognize that it will only be possible to achieve a truly sustainable future with equality and justice for all.