Racism is not black or white. Racism lives in the in between too, like green. That’s right – green.
Environmental racism, which refers to the public policies and industry practices that disproportionately burden minority groups with environmental hazards, is one of the many forms of systemic racism that often go unnoticed or ignored by people in positions of power and influence.
Despite its distressingly low profile in many prominent facets of public life, environmental racism has impacted marginalized communities for centuries and will continue to do so unless serious attention and action is brought to the environmental justice movement.
What is environmental racism?
Environmental racism refers to the way in which minority neighborhoods (populated primarily by people of color and members of low socioeconomic status) are burdened with a disproportionate number of hazards like toxic waste facilities, garbage dumps, and other sources of pollution that lower quality of life. Rooted in racial discrimination regarding housing, land use, and zoning, environmental racism fuels the systemic segregation of minority communities.
Restricted by a lack of voice and political power, minority neighborhoods have become the target of mass marginalization and displacement. Environmental racism is yet another example of how discrimination and classism continue to determine who gets what, when, and how much.
Robert Bullard, a renowned sociologist also known as the father of environmental justice, found “race to be more important than socioeconomic status in predicting the location of the nation’s commercial hazardous waste facilities.”
What communities are affected by environmental racism?
A 2018 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report uncovered that over half of the nine million people living near hazardous waste sites are people of color. More specifically, the study found Blacks,Latinx, Asian/Pacific Islander, and Native American groups to be most exposed to hazardous waste facilities (within one km), bearing the onerous burden of environmental racism.
The majority of environmental issues facing people of color result from significant institutional barriers. For instance, with largely ineffective or non-existent sanitation infrastructure such as running water and sewage lines in highly populated areas, compounded by lack of political power to pressure all levels of government for just and equitable treatment, the physical state of minority communities quickly deteriorates.
Furthermore, Bullard found that discriminatory government policies, banking practices, and housing practices limit social mobility, diminish job opportunities, and decrease environmental choices for minority groups, thereby segregating Blacks, Latinos, and others from their white counterparts.
Impacts of environmental racism on Native American communities
American Indian land has also been heavily polluted. The Commission for Racial Justice found that nearly 50% of all American Indians live in areas with uncontrolled hazardous waste sites. It is no secret that Native Americans have historically suffered from institutional disenfranchisement. Forceful marginalization, however, continues to burden Native American communities to this day.
Due to the complicated nature of Native American land ownership, most Native American property is held in trust. In other words, the federal government holds title to Native American lands on behalf of each nation, despite the fact that they are formally recognized as sovereign nations.
This intricate arrangement allows the U.S. government and Big Business to impose unwanted environmental damage on Native American communities. It grants the U.S. government the authority to build hazardous waste facilities or pipelines on indigenous land without their approval and even forcibly remove Native American groups from their land.
How does Environmental Racism Impact Income?
Undeniably, income levels correlate with environmental racism as well. However, income alone does not decide which communities experience higher pollution rates. According to sociologist Robert Bullard, “middle-income Blacks who make around $50,000 to $60,000 are more likely to live in neighborhoods that are more polluted than whites who make $10,000.”
Despite income levels, low-income white Americans can move into less polluted, more affluent areas while institutional racism keeps middle-income Black Americans in heavily polluted neighborhoods. Furthermore, Bullard found that in families earning less than $6,000 per year, 68% of Black American children have lead poisoning.
This means that even when income is held constant, “race is still the most potent factor to predict where these facilities are located, more important than income or other socio-economic factors,” notes Bullard.
The most infamous and recent instance of environmental racism was the Flint Michigan Water Crisis. Environmental racism, however, does not begin or end with Flint – there are hundreds of Flints across the U.S.
In fact, these “sacrifice zones” are littered all throughout America: Louisiana’s Cancer Alley, southwest Detroit and its refineries, Philadelphia, Richmond (California), Wilmington (Delaware) – the list goes on. I’d encourage you to learn more about specific instances of environmental racism like these.
These are all communities of color surrounded by big industry that taints the air they must breathe and the water they must drink. This is poisoning millions of Americans. This is systemic racism.
How does Environmental Racism Impact Health?
The impacts of environmental racism are overwhelming. Studies have shown Black Americans to be three times more likely to die from exposure to air pollutants than white Americans.
As a result, people of color suffer from a disproportionate number of health-related issues. For example, lead poisoning affects between three and four million children, most of whom are Blacks and Latinos. Black children also experience elevated levels of asthma, cancer, and learning disabilities.
Climate change is yet another pressing concern for minority communities facing environmental racism. Native American communities in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, for instance, have seen an unprecedented drop in their food supply due to rising temperatures that have depleted fish and wildlife, forcing many of these groups to relocate entire villages due to thawing permafrost caused by global warming.
Now, minority communities are facing increased threat from COVID-19, which has disproportionately affected Black Americans, with mortality rates 2.3 times as high as the rate for whites and Asians according to a June 2020 APM Research study. If minority groups in the U.S. had died of COVID-19 at the same rate as white Americans, the deaths of at least 14,400 Black Americans, 1,200 Latino Americans and 200 Indigenous Americans would have been averted.
Increased exposure to toxins makes marginalized groups much more vulnerable to public health threats like the coronavirus. Exposure to high levels of lead and air pollution puts communities of color at a greater risk for compromised immune systems and illnesses such as asthma, diabetes, and lung disease – all known risk factors for COVID-19.
Moreover, with inferior access to proper healthcare and other components of the social fabric (like child care), minority groups are often unable to mitigate the threats that they disproportionately face.
Globally, the color of your skin significantly influences your exposure to many of our world’s worst ills. This is environmental racism at work.
The Fight for Environmental Justice
“Three words connect it all: I can’t breathe,” Rev. Michael Malcom, executive director of Alabama Interfaith Power and Light, said. “Whether it’s the pressure we’ve felt through policy or the violence we face from people who are supposed to protect and serve us or the brutality we face from pollution, it has always been, ‘I can’t breathe.'”
Now more than ever, there is a sense of clarity in our society that grassroots involvement is necessary to enact change. Time and time again, we have seen two main problems at the state and federal level: Not In My Term of Office (NIMTOF) and Not In My Election Year (NIMBY) syndromes. Though a state may be dedicated to ameliorating the disparate burden of hazardous waste facilities, politicians will continue to prioritize their reelection and their legacy over the well-being of their constituents. This mindset will not eradicate systemic racism.
Instead, communities must demand state and federal accountability and mobilize from the ground up to raise the political capital of neighboring minority communities. This is largely the reasoning behind the Environmental Justice Movement, pioneered by sociologist Robert Bullard.
The Environmental Justice Movement advocates for healthy, sustainable, and livable communities, ensuring that tax dollars are spent on the needy rather than the greedy.
A list of the 17 principles of Environmental Justice can be found here.
These can be uncomfortable observations and conversations. But progress requires discomfort and pain. In our collective fight for a more just, equitable, healthy, and sustainable planet, we must highlight the barriers that inhibit our ability to create the world we all deserve.