Environmental Racism


Throughout the past several decades, environmental justice has received more and more attention from the public.  The issues surrounding the environment now play a key role in both the political and legal playing fields.  Policies have been amended and agencies have been created due to protest; lawmakers and litigators have built a focus around environmental issues; politicians have even used the environment as a centerpiece for their campaigns.  With all of this attention being given to environmental justice, there has to be questions about how the environment relates to other social phenomena.  Since a healthy environment is something that all people should be able to benefit from, common sense thinking would say that environmental justice has the same effects on people across the social spectrum.  This is simply untrue.  Race, social class, and residency have a direct impact on how certain people are advantaged or disadvantaged by environmental laws.  Research shows that there is just as much inequality in environmental law as there has been in other aspects of the law in terms of these factors.  This will be an analysis of how race is directly related to environmental injustices, and what is being done to resist environmental racism and create equality in the environment.

A young boy standing only yards away from a hazardous chemical plant.



The environment is something that everyone should be equally allowed to protect and enjoy.  It is something that requires us to come together to preserve and properly use, yet somehow there is still an imbalance in who is affected and how much say they have in the law and policy making pertaining to the environment.  This imbalance is centered on one concept that seems to always be the cause of inequality: race.  How is it that racial inequality can play a part in the environmental justice, which is something that should have no relation to race whatsoever?  This is how the idea of environmental racism was born.  Dr. Benjamin Chavis coined the term “environmental racism” as this:

“Environmental racism is racial discrimination in environmental policy making and the unequal enforcement       of the environmental laws and regulations.  It is the deliberate targeting of people-of-color communities for toxic waste facilities and the official sanctioning of a life-threatening of poisons and pollutants in people-of-color communities.  It is also manifested in the history of excluding people of color from leadership in the environmental movement.”

Based on Chavis’ definition, environmental policies that are in place today not only target people of color when it comes to the practices and placement of unhealthy facilities, but they also exclude people of color from being a part of the policy making process, even though they are the ones who are usually directly affected by environmental injustices.

Houses neighboring a toxic waste site.



In order to understand the injustices of environmental practices and policy making, it is important to look at what environmental justice has to do with race.  According to Salzman and Thompson, “environmental justice focuses on how the burdens of environmental harms and regulations are allocated among individuals and groups within our society” (Salzman & Thompson 38).  In other words, environmental justice can only work if we look at how it affects people of different social groups, i.e. racial or class groups.  Why are communities that have a majority population of people of color the ones that are targeted by polluting industries?  In Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality, Bullard explains that African American communities are targeted by polluting industries because of their “economic and political vulnerability… and are likely to suffer greater risks from these facilities than are the general population” (Bullard, Dumping in Dixie, xiv).  African American communities simply lack the organization, financial resources, and governmental lobbying and support to assess and handle these problems on their own, so businesses take advantage of them.  Also, environmental issues are lower on the list of social issues in African American communities than are issues such as drugs, crime and poverty, thus there is not much focus on the environment.

From looking at individual case studies, it is apparent that environmental laws and regulations are not applied uniformly.  There are obvious differences between the health risks of people who live near industrial pollution, and according to Bullard, “virtually all of the studies of exposure to outdoor air pollution have found a significant difference according to income and race” (Bullard, Dumping in Dixie, 99).  Statistics provide disturbing evidence to help prove Bullard’s point.  For example, in Atlanta 82.8% of blacks live in areas that are highly exposed to waste and pollution, compared to 60.2% of whites.  Also, in King and Queen County, VA, the population is virtually split 50/50 between white and black.  Between 1969 and 1990, five new landfills were placed in the county.  Four out of the five landfills were placed in predominantly black communities, leaving only one to be placed a predominantly white community.  All five of these communities protested the landfill sites, however only the protests conducted by people living in the predominantly white community were successful.  50% of children in the U.S. suffering from lead poisoning are African American and exposure to lead poisoning is higher for African Americans both within and outside urban areas, regardless of income level.  Three-fifths of all African Americans live in communities where abandoned toxic waste sites are located (Bullard, In Our Backyards, 12).  Nearly half of all Native Americans live in communities with uncontrolled toxic waste sites.  As the number of people of color in a community increases, so does the probability that a waste site will be placed in that community.  A 1993 survey found that 87% of studies done on the distribution of environmental hazards have revealed disparities based on race (Goldman Table 1).   Cases and statistics such as these show the correlation between race and the placement of hazardous industries.

On top of having hazardous waste sites and polluting industries placed in their communities, African Americans face greater risks on an economic scale because of environmental injustices.  Environmentally and physically harmful jobs are more likely to be held by people of color because of social inequalities that prevent them from being employed under better conditions.  Not only are people of color more likely to hold these jobs, but they are also more likely to be exposed to the more harmful aspects of these jobs and thus suffer greater health risks because of work place hazards.  Studies have shown that people of color are at higher risk for mortality and debilitating injury and disease as a result of working environmentally hazardous jobs than white people are.  These are often the results of studies conducted on people of color and white people working within the same industries.  A 1990 Department of Labor survey showed that 77% of all farmworkers identified as minorities.  The agricultural industry accounts for 80% of pesticide usage in the U.S. and since such a high percentage of agricultural workers are of minority groups, people of color are at a higher risk for serious health problems such as poisoning.  Many of these problems go unreported due to the fear of losing jobs.

This creates a double-edged sword for people of color that are exposed to environmental hazards.  These industries are destroying their communities on an environmental level and that is a huge problem within itself.  However, the industries also create jobs for the people living in such a community, and thus there is a conflict between getting rid of polluting industries and allowing people to keep steady jobs, even though these jobs are potentially life-threatening to the people who hold them as well as to the community as a whole.  This goes back to the notion of big business and government taking advantage of communities that lack the resources to handle problems like this.

A young boy playing in pollution near Chester, PA.


What is being done to end racial inequality in environmental issues?  Fortunately, since the 1990s there has been some progress in dealing with the racial aspect of environmental justice.  The first signs of environmental justice movements in a predominantly non-white community were seen in Warren County, NC.  Beginning in 1978, residents of Warren County, whose population is 69% non-white, began protesting a landfill that held 60,000 tons of soil that had been contaminated with 31,000 gallons of PCB oil.  The protest was the first major protest of an environmental injustice and it sparked a movement throughout the U.S. to move towards justice for all people regarding environmental issues.  It also prompted the study “Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States,” which has the purpose of finding the correlations between environmentally hazardous activities and race.  It was conducted by the United Church of Christ and was published in 1987, making it one of the first comprehensive studies documenting the condition of environmental racism in the U.S.

A protester in Warren County, NC being taken away by police.

Although the protest was ultimately a failure, the Warren County incident sparked a nationwide movement towards resisting environmental injustice. In Chester, PA, residents gained great progress in exposing environmental racism in their community.  60% of the residents in Chester identify as minorities, and it is also the site of the dumping grounds for Delaware County.  At one point, this site released 90% of all toxins produced in the county.  In the early 90s, the people of Chester began a grassroots movement that eventually to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to court under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, claiming that the waste being dumped in African American communities such as Chester was disproportionate to that which was dumped in white communities.  They received federal approval to proceed in their case, citing it as an environmental racism suit.  Today, the town of Chester still struggles with environmental hazards, but their case was a milestone in the official acknowledgement of environmental racism.

Widespread recognition given to the case of environmental racism in Chester, PA.

            Another form of active protest against environmental racism was the establishment of the National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit.  This was a national summit that convened in Washington D.C. from October 24 to October 27, 1991.  It was meant to be a representation of diverse ethnicities, faiths, locations, etc. and their views on the environmental practices of the major polluting industries in the United States, as well as the work of the government in aiding rather than reprimanding these industries.  The issues addressed at the summit included the general social and environmental crises faced by people of color, the particular types of pollution impacting their communities, and the historical and cultural relationship they had with the environment.  This summit resulted in nationwide networking for people concerned with environmental justice, as well as a united front of people of color with solidified goals.

One of the major injustices found within the U.S. environmental policy can be seen in the EPA.  Up until recently, the EPA often worked with polluting industries on a number of different levels, granting them local permits without any investigation, enforcing higher penalties for environmental infractions committed in white communities than in minority communities, and waiting longer to put minority communities on the Super-fund clean up priority list, as seen in the Warren County incident.  In 1992, in hopes of silencing recent protests against environmental injustice, the EPA released a report addressing the issue of race in environmental matters.  According to the report, there were no new findings of racial discrimination in the EPA’s practices.  It was later revealed that these results were published after a number of misrepresentations and omissions of data.  So, in the late 1990s the EPA and other agencies within the U.S. government developed new initiatives to help remedy the problem of environmental racism.  In 1997 they proposed a plan known as the Environmental Justice Implementation Plan, which sought to have the Office of Environmental Justice and the Office of Civil Rights work together and develop programs to increase the participation of minorities in environmental policy making.

Other developments that worked towards incorporating environmental justice in federal policy making was the creation of the NEJAC (National Environmental Justice Advisory Council) in 1993 and President Clinton’s Executive Order 12898 in 1994, which required that all agencies incorporate EJ as part of their mission by “identifying and addressing, as appropriate, disproportionately high or adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies and activities on minority populations and low-income populations in the United States and its territories and possessions” (Bullard 149).

Young activists in Harlem showing their interest in resisting environmental racism.


It is apparent that environmental justice is making steps toward eliminating racial inequality in environmental policy making and industry regulation.  As we continue to move towards living in a healthier, more sustainable environment, we must also move towards living in a healthier, more sustainable society.  As seen by the numerous studies done on how race is related to the environment, it is quite clear that socio-economic problems have a trickle effect and make environmental problems worse for some people than they are for others.  This is unacceptable.  These environmental studies not only show the major harm that is being done to the environment by industries in the U.S. and the government’s tendency to ignore most of it, but also a deeper and even more disturbing problem: that racial inequality is alive and well, and while we’ve abolished slavery and outlawed segregation, somehow people have found a new way to discriminate against others.   When it seems that we have taken a step forward, we’ve simply taken a step to the side but virtually stayed in the same place. That’s why it is important to take care of environmental issues across the board because they are turning into social issues that are much harder to deal with and much worse on society as a whole.  Let’s move past placing blame and move toward fixing the problem.  The biggest step we can take in doing this is recognizing that there is a problem that needs to be fixed, because after all, it is very hard to fight what you can’t see.  Raising awareness not only about racial issues within environmental justice but about environmental issues in general is extremely important.  This is our environment, and it is for all of us to protect and enjoy, and if all of us are given an equal opportunity to protect it, all of us will most certainly enjoy it.



Here is a list of scholarly sources that pertain to this issue.  Some are cited in this post.

Bullard, Robert. Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality. 3rd Edition.      Westview Press, 2000

Bullard, Robert. In Our Backyards. EPA Journal, 1992.

Commission for Racial Justice. Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States: A National Report        Racial and Socio-Economic Characteristics of Communities with Hazardous Waste Sites.      United Church of Christ, 1987.

Goldman, Benjamin A. Not Just for Prosperity: Achieving Sustainability with Environmental         Justice. Washington, D.C.: National Wildlife Federation, 1993.

Goldsmith, S. & Eggers, W.D. Governing by Network. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institute Press, 2004.

Human Rights Commission. Environmental Racism: A Status Report & Recommendations.  City and County of San Francisco, 2003.

Salzman, J. & Thompson, B.H. Environmental Law and Policy. New York: Foundation Press,          2007.

Image sources:

1. http://www.dosomething.org/tipsandtools/background-environmental-racism

2. http://climaticidechronicles.wordpress.com/

3. http://www.errc.org/cikk.php?cikk=844

4. http://rstilleyphotography.com/portfolio/Dispatch/Dispatch%2010.html

5. http://www.ejnet.org/chester/index_links.html

6. http://www.weact.org/Programs/YouthLeadershipDevelopment/tabid/194/Default.aspx

7. http://www.momscleanairforce.org/2011/09/22/why-air-pollution-is-worse-for-black-children/

–Page authored by Joe Gallant

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