What Is Environmental Racism? Injustices Throughout History and Today

Plus, learn how to get involved in the environmental justice movement.

Protesters Marching Against Waste Dump
Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Environmental racism is defined as the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color. Environmental justice is the movement against environmental racism—one focused on minimizing environmental impacts on all people, advocating for fairer environmental policies and lawmaking, and installing greater protections for BIPOC communities.

Environmental racism has encompassed many types of environmental issues and discriminations that still persist today. Incidents of environmental racism might be widely publicized, such as the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. On the other hand, many cases are not as well-known and sometimes framed outside of the scope of racism, such as disproportionate heat deaths.

Here, we’ll review some key examples throughout history and what is being done today to address environmental racism.

Early Recognition of Environmental Racism

Most research looks to the 1960s as the period in which the phrase “environmental racism” began to be used in the United States. Later in the 1980s, its definition became more widely used and known. However, we know based on the country’s long history of normalizing racist concepts and beliefs that environmental racism dates back much further, before it was ever officially defined.

Air Pollution

Air pollution is one of the leading risk factors for death and is responsible for more than 11% of deaths around the world. While pollution emission rates and death rates have been falling, exposure to ambient air pollution continues to increase the risk of disease.

Many studies have shown that BIPOC communities breathe in more air pollution than white communities. One study from September 2021 shows that Black, Hispanic, and Asian people in the U.S. were exposed to higher-than-average levels of ambient fine particulate air pollution (PM2.5), whereas white people were exposed to lower-than-average levels.

These results echo a study from 2001 that showed an increased rate of hospital admissions associated with air pollution for non-white people versus the white population. Further, a 2013 report showed that the psychosocial stress of racism can amplify the harm caused by polluted air.

Redlining and Heat Deaths

Redlining is a discriminatory practice that restricts where people can buy homes based on their race. Historically, redlining specifically discriminates against Black and Jewish communities.

On average, redlined neighborhoods can register temperatures up to 7 degrees C higher than non-redlined neighborhoods. Contributing to this temperature difference, redlined areas are less likely to receive funding for environmental projects. While neighborhoods deemed low risk receive larger land investments for parks and trees, redlined neighborhoods are less likely to have adequate tree cover. The lack of green space increases the heat index in these neighborhoods and, as a result, impacts the air quality.

Extreme heat is the leading cause of weather-related premature deaths. In the United States, indigenous males over the age of 65 are at the greatest risk of heat-related death, with Black males coming in second, according to the CDC. These numbers are attributed to lack of access to health care, less green space, and more heat-absorbing surfaces. With temperatures rising as a result of climate change, heat-related deaths in vulnerable populations are likely to increase.

Toxic Waste Dumping

Person in protective suit carrying barrel of hazardous waste on polluted shore
PhotoAlto/Sandro Di Carlo Darsa / Getty Images

The toxic waste dumpings near BIPOC communities are some of the first offenses to be protested in the name of environmental justice. 

In 1987, the United Church of Christ's Commission for Racial Justice found that 60% of Black and Hispanic Americans lived in an area that was considered a toxic waste site. When they revisited the study 20 years later, they found the numbers were likely greater and that communities of color made up the majority of the population within 1.8 miles of toxic waste facilities.

Based on this research, it was clear that ethnic minorities (Hispanics, African Americans, and Asians/Pacific Islanders) lived disproportionately closer to waste facilities throughout the United States. A 2015 study refuted the possibility that communities of color were first drawn to areas near toxic waste facilities because of cheaper costs.

Toxic Waste on Indigenous Land

Indigenous communities in the United States have a long history of having nuclear waste stored on their land. Because of their sovereignty, Indigenous land is not regulated by state and federal laws. This makes it easier for companies and governments to take over their land. Native tribes are sometimes offered large amounts of money for interested parties to dispose of toxic waste on their land—and many take the offer in the hopes of greater economic opportunity.

Many Indigenous communities also deal with the effects of uranium being mined near or on tribal lands. There have been 15,000 abandoned uranium mines identified by the Environmental Protection Agency, and about 75% of those are on federal and tribal land.

Toxic Waste Outside of the U.S.

The environmental racism of toxic waste dumping is not unique to the United States. Companies both in the U.S. and in European countries have been dumping hundreds of containers of electronic waste in West and Central Africa, according to a 2019 study. While these items can be recycled, as is being done in more economically developed countries like the United Kingdom, the African countries impacted do not have the facilities to recycle e-waste. The hazardous chemicals in the waste inevitably impact human health and the environment.

Clean Water

Access to clean water is a major environmental issue all over the world. A report prepared by the Natural Resources Defense Council, based on data from the EPA, found that race was the strongest factor in the length of time a community went without clean drinking water. This report reinforces that communities of color have been repeatedly disregarded when it comes to community investment.

The Safe Drinking Water Act was passed in 1974 and gave the EPA the authority to regulate the nation's water supply. Today, it limits over 90 contaminants. This, however, hasn't helped communities where violations were slow to be remedied. The NRDC report showed that areas with a higher number of BIPOC citizens are 40% more likely to have drinking water laws in violation.

Two of the three countries where less than 50% of the population has access to clean drinking water are in sub-Saharan Africa. While this is an improvement since 1990 when the World Health Organization and UNICEF started monitoring the situation, it still marks the disparities. Most of these efforts have been funded by aid from other countries, making it glaringly obvious which parts of the world are being left behind.

Flint Water Crisis

Federal State Of Emergency Declared In Flint, Michigan Over Contaminated Water Supply
In 2014, citizens of Flint, Michigan were told to boil and continue using their contaminated water. Sarah Rice / Getty Images

In 2013, the government of Flint, Michigan, switched from using Detroit’s water supply to the less costly water in the Flint River. The water was not treated properly, and citizens of Flint were exposed to lead for years despite complaints to government officials.

The insufficient response and mismanagement of the crisis is considered an outcome of systemic racism, discussed at large by the Michigan Civil Rights Commission. Its report on the crisis cites the city’s history of low-quality housing, employment opportunities, and education for communities of color as just some of the factors that perpetuate environmental racism.

Addressing Environmental Racism

While organizations and governments have acknowledged environmental racism and even taken steps to rectify past injustices, there is substantial work to be done. 

The EPA’s Superfund program organizes cleanup projects on land contaminated after the mismanagement of hazardous waste. This program was established in 1980 through the Comprehensive Environmental Response and Compensation and Liability Act and allows the EPA to force responsible parties to clean up the hazardous waste. When no responsible party can be found, the act allocates funds for the EPA to clean up the waste. 

Some organizations like Green Action have pointed to inadequate Superfund cleanup jobs, calling for full community oversight, as well as temporary resident housing for those impacted by the cleanups.

How You Can Get Involved in Environmental Justice

  • Pay attention to laws and policymaking in your area. Note which communities are being impacted by laws and contact your representative to speak against environmental racism. 
  • Support organizations, such as Indigenous Environmental Network and Climate Justice Alliance, that work with BIPOC communities to mitigate damage. There are many local, national, and international organizations that are welcoming volunteers and other forms of support. 
  • Continue to educate yourself on environmental justice and racism. There are many more cases aside from the ones mentioned in the article. The more we learn, the more we’ll be able to hold policymakers accountable for injustices.
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