Updated: Apr 30
By Rohini Anand, PhD.
April is a month focused on the importance of saving our planet. As we celebrate our commitment to the environment, let’s not forget the disparate impact our environmental policies have on underserved communities - mass industrialization, uprooting people from their native lands, inner cities with lead and asbestos poisoning. Environmental injustices have historically been perpetrated on communities of color by colonizers, industrialists, politicians and opportunists in neighborhoods across the U.S.
What is Environmental Racism?
In 1982, African American civil rights leader Benjamin Chavis coined the term “environmental racism” describing it as “racial discrimination in environmental policy-making, the enforcement of regulations and laws, the deliberate targeting of communities of color for toxic waste facilities, the official sanctioning of the life-threatening presence of poisons and pollutants in our communities, and the history of excluding people of color from leadership of the ecology movements.” (“What is environmental racism?” World Economic Forum. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/07/what-is-environmental-racism-pollution-covid-systemic/)
We know only too well that neighborhoods populated by people of color and members of low socioeconomic groups have to deal with toxic facilities, garbage dumps, foul odors and other sources of environmental pollution resulting in poor health outcomes. (Lumen Learning. https://courses.lumenlearning.com/alamo-sociology/chapter/reading-environmental-racism/)
The racial undertones of environmental injustice have their origins in the birth of this country. Lands belonging to Native American communities were usurped by white settlers to grow crops forcing the original people to abandon their lands. However, environmental racism evolved as a concept in the 1970s and 1980s to describe racial environmental injustices in practice and in policy.
In 1971, an outcry in Warren County, North Carolina by Black activists protesting against toxic waste dumping led to a US Government Accountability Office study. This study clearly laid out the correlations between race, economic background and location of hazardous waste facilities. (Energy.gov. “Environmental justice history” https://www.energy.gov/lm/services/environmental-justice/environmental-justice-history)
Who gets impacted and why?
The negative impact of environmental policies and practices on communities of color is undisputable. In a landmark 2007 study, Dr. Robert Bullard said race overtook socioeconomic status in predicting the location of hazardous waste facilities in the United States. The study showed that African American children were five times more likely to have lead poisoning due to their proximity to waste than Caucasian children. African American communities making $50,000 to $60,0000 were more prone to living in polluted areas than their white counterparts making $10,000. (“Toxic wastes and race at twenty. 1987-2007.” https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/toxic-wastes-and-race-at-twenty-1987-2007.pdf)
In 2018, a detailed study of particulate emissions found that Black people were exposed to 54% more particulate matter emissions (soot) than the average American. (“Disparities in Distribution of Particulate Matter Emission Sources by Race and Poverty Status". American Journal of Public Health. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5844406/)
Regardless of the cause, we know that the outcome is that many communities of color are located in industrial zones where particulate emissions are disproportionately higher. The 2017 tap water crisis in Flint, Michigan, is a clear example of environmental racism. To save costs, the city’s 100,000 majority-black residents were forced to use water from the Flint River since 2014. However, the City failed to properly treat the new supply and eventually between 6,000 and 12,000 children drank tap water with high levels of lead and 12 citizens died from Legionnaires’ disease. Despite community activism, the official reaction was painstakingly slow.
In the US, Native American communities continue to live on sites with large amounts of nuclear and other waste as some corporations take advantage of weaker land laws or manipulate legal interpretations to create landfills and toxic waste sites.
Environmental racism is a systemic issue that results in poor health care outcomes, mental health issues and unemployment. The causes are also systemic. Communities of color lack the means to wage lengthy legal battles against the perpetrators and this includes collective action, which also requires financial means. Add to these the absence of political power, lack of mobility and poverty.
Communities, with financial and political clout are able to effectively navigate the system to fight against landfills and power stations in their backyards. They also have the means to opt for “white flight” leaving industrial zones for far off suburbs.
The impacts of environmental racism
The health impacts from environmental racism are numerous and range from indoor air quality in schools to industrial areas where people are routinely exposed to hazardous chemical toxins in landfills and rivers. The Environmental Protection Agency’s National Center for Environmental Assessment has found that Blacks were exposed to 1.5 times more pollutants than whites, while Hispanics were exposed to 1.2 times more pollutants than non-Hispanic whites. (“Environmental equity: Reducing risk for all communities.” Environmental Protection Agency.) The impact – those that have the financial means lead longer, healthier lives than poorer communities which are often communities of color.)
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black children are twice as likely to have asthma as white children. Black children are 10 times more likely than white kids to die of complications due to asthma. (https://www.cdc.gov/asthma/most_recent_data.htm)
Lower economic mobility
Neighborhoods in communities of color have historically seen low property values, making it easy and cheap for industrialists to acquire and convert large tracts into industrial land. Over time, the pollution caused by manufacturing plants and other businesses on these lands lead to low property values, preventing people of color from building wealth through property ownership. (The Century Foundation. Environmental racism has left black communities especially vulnerable to COVID-19. https://tcf.org/content/commentary/environmental-racism-left-black-communities-especially-vulnerable-covid-19/ )
What can organizations do?
1. Embed an assessment of the environmental impact into the design of initiatives rather than as an after-thought.
2. Build awareness about environmental racism among employees and upper management.
3. Develop partnerships with the communities where business is done and bring them into the discussions at the outset regarding initiatives that impact their communities.