Confronting Environmental Racism: Justice at the Intersections of Environment and Race

In theory, environmental risks like air pollution and global warming don’t discriminate across geographic or political boundaries. In reality, however, the burden of climate change has been placed squarely on the shoulders of low-income and marginalized groups across the globe. As Hurricane Katrina demonstrated, economic and infrastructure recovery from natural disasters often neglects communities of color, concentrating resources in higher-income and white neighborhoods. As a result of disparities in housing values, Black homeowners in New Orleans received $8,000 less in government aid than white homeowners after the hurricane. The water crisis in Flint, Michigan exposed the city’s 100,000 majority-Black residents to deadly levels of lead from aging pipes and other contaminants like E.coli, and officials were slow to respond to concerns. The 2016-2017 protests over the Dakota Access pipeline—which threatened the Standing Rock Indian Reservation’s water supply, sites of historic importance, and culturally sensitive burial grounds—drew national attention to the concept of environmental racism.

As history demonstrates, communities of color regularly experience environmental racism–the systematic policies and practices that deny people of color the right to clean air and water, green space, and healthy food. 

  • Black Americans are 54 percent more likely to be exposed to air pollution in the form of fine particulates (PM2.5) and three times more likely to die from asthma than whites.

  • Racial minorities are more likely to live near toxic waste sites and landfills, drink unhealthy water, and have elevated blood levels of lead.

  • The climate justice space sorely lacks representation: 85 percent of the staff and 80 percent of the boards of 2,057 environmental nonprofits identify as white.

  • Nearly 11.2 percent of African American children and 4.0 percent of Mexican-American children are diagnosed with lead poisoning, compared with 2.3 percent of white children.

Root Causes of Environmental Racism

Environmental racism is inseparable from racial segregation. These inequities can be traced back to federal housing agencies, bankers, and insurers who redlined Black neighborhoods, forcing Black residents into crowded cities while subsidizing white residents’ move to the suburbs. Without the resources and political power to influence urban planning, these communities were chosen as sites for oil refineries, gas compressor stations, factories, and waste sites. In a phenomenon called the “urban island heat effect”, these historically-redlined districts also now contain some of the hottest areas in the country, exacerbating heat- and carbon-related morbidity and mortality. 

Health Consequences of Environmental Racism 

Climate change, pollution, and natural disasters are widely regarded as threats to health, especially for communities of color whose residents are at greater risk of illnesses linked to unhealthy water, housing, and air. Racial disparities in exposure to PM2.5 are associated with premature death in people with heart or lung disease, nonfatal heart attacks, irregular heartbeat, aggravated asthma, and decreased lung function. Food insecurity elevates risk of diabetes, heart disease, and mental illness and behavioral health issues. 

The consequences of environmental racism are particularly dire for children. The very generation who will shoulder the responsibility of addressing climate change are the ones most impacted by environmental hazards like lead pollution and chemicals in household products. Children spend more time outdoors than adults, often engaging in vigorous aerobic activity, and their physiological systems are not equipped to deal with such high levels of toxins like PM2.5 and nitrous oxide. What is not documented is not addressed, and there is a need for much more research on the unique environmental risks faced by children, and especially by children of color. Families and communities have a right to know about potential exposures, and community-based participatory tools like mobile air quality monitoring devices and “photovoice” can help utilize data as powerful tools for organizing. 

Unfortunately, even without the destructive nature of climate change, access to the outdoors is already limited for many people, which in turn limits access to the health benefits of physical activity and spending time outside. Barriers like gear, transportation, and historic discrimination have made outdoor recreation a privilege instead of a right. The history of exclusion of BIPOC in nature began with displacement of tribes from their ancestral homelands and subsequent destruction of vital resources by settler-colonialists. It then morphed into the white supremacist conservationist movement and segregation of the National Parks System. Today the stories of Christian Cooper, who was threatened with violence while bird-watching in Central Park, and Ahmaud Arbery, who was murdered while jogging down a street in Georgia, are a reminder that Black, brown and indigenous peoples are often threatened or made to feel unsafe in the outdoors. Everyone deserves to enjoy the peace, health, and sense of wonder that come with spending time outside, which will only fuel the movement for environmental justice. 

Leveraging COVID-19 Response to Build Environmental Justice

While COVID-19 has demanded much of the Nation’s attention and resources, economic recovery from the pandemic and the use of future funding must integrate smart growth and environmental justice to create sustainable, resilient communities. Where there are food apartheids and artificially-high produce prices in neighborhoods of color, there is potential for grassroots community gardens or farm-to-school lunch programs. Where there are legacies of redlining and gentrification, there are ongoing efforts to utilize participatory budgeting and community engagement in land use decisions. Strategic investment can turn contaminated properties, abandoned buildings, and poorly designed streets into rain gardens, energy-efficient public housing, and protected bike lanes. Taking a strength-based approach to policy and urban development guidelines, focusing on the unique physical and cultural assets every community has to preserve, can strengthen the local identity.

While it is severely lacking in communities of color, green space can mitigate air pollution and the urban island heat effect. Micro greenspaces like “pocket parks”, community gardens, and parkway rain gardens, for example, can provide the same benefits without the hefty price tag or the land use footprint. Parks promote healthy air quality and are correlated with lower community rates of asthma and obesity, but neighborhoods of color have fewer park amenities than white neighborhoods and are more likely to experience park incivilities like vandalism, litter, and crime. In Los Angeles neighborhoods with high crime rates and economic hardship, the “Parks after Dark” (PAD) program turns parks into vibrant community centers with free after-hours programming for all ages including dance, sports, art, and fitness classes. Across the country in New Jersey, GreensGrow farm converted a steel galvanizing factory–a Superfund brownfield that had been capped by the EPA–into a vibrant urban farm that produces thousands of pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables for the city each year.

From Local to National: Opportunities for Centering Equity in Environmentalism

The anecdote to environmental racism has been the incredible momentum of the environmental justice movement, which was sparked in 1982 in Warren Country, NC where 6,000 truckloads of soil laced with toxic PCBs were set to be dumped in a predominantly African American community. Six weeks of marches and nonviolent street protests and over 500 arrests sparked a national movement to safeguard communities as places where all people can live, work, and play with environmental hazards. Today, the work continues in places like Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, where over 100 custom-built air quality monitors will be placed in vulnerable communities that disproportionately experience pollution and poverty to democratize air quality data. Regenesis, a national nonprofit often highlighted by the EPA for its environmental justice innovation, remediates contaminated sites while incorporating housing, job training, healthcare, and infrastructure for local communities. 

Government agencies, nonprofits, and private companies should increase the representation of people of color, LGBTQ people, and other nature-deprived communities. Funding should focus on programs for children—especially those in low-income and redlined school districts —by providing field trips, nature-based STEM programs, and after-school resources to increase exposure to the outdoors. Passing the Transit to Trails Act would require the U.S. Department of Transportation to fund accessible transportation systems in critically-underserved communities to improve access to nature. Even more broadly, the Environmental Justice Act of 2021 that was introduced by U.S. Senator Cory Booker would require federal agencies to mitigate environmental injustices through agencies while strengthening the legal protections for vulnerable communities. From policy changes to local initiatives, environmental justice will right historical wrongs that disproportionately harm communities of color, low-income and indigenous communities.

Resources about Environmental Racism

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Environmental Racism

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Environmental Justice

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Native Americans and First Nations