What Is Environmental Racism?

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Usually, when people think of racism, most solely think of the prejudices individuals have toward a particular group of people or the systems of power and oppression. However, environmental racism is an important aspect of this broader system of oppression.

Environmental Racism

It can be defined as a form of inequality that causes individual communities of color to face higher levels of exposure to environmental hazards when compared to the White population.Such as being concentrated in substandard housing or located near pollution sources — like toxic waste sites, landfills, chemical plants, and major roadways.

In the American context, it disproportionately affects Black Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, and Latino populations. This article discusses environmental racism and its impacts on BIPOC groups, the history of environmental racism, examples of it, and what can be done to mitigate this issue.

Environmental Racism Disproportionately Harms People of Color

Environmental racism works in tandem with industry practices and public policies to benefit White individuals while putting the burden of cost on people of color.

For example, industrial infrastructures are often placed in proximity to communities of color as they lack the resources to fight back. In contrast, communities with high numbers of White residents tend to receive health-protective infrastructure, like green places (land in urban areas that is reserved for greenery, trees, shrubs, or other vegetation).

This finding was supported by a 2019-study that found that environmental racism was instrumental in developing White spaces. The researchers of this paper coined the term “creative extraction” to describe the process of taking resources from Black places to invest in White places.

The study highlighted how development, infrastructure, and environmental harm were linked through political and legal contestation and resource distribution. Thus, creative extraction involved multiple seemingly unconnected interests working towards a mutual goal.

Often, communities of color face cumulative health impacts from multiple co-occurring exposures, yet they are regularly excluded from participating in decision-making boards, commissions and regulatory bodies.

The History of Environmental Racism

The effects of environmental racism were first recognized by the United States General Accounting Office’s 1983 report. They compared people living near plastic plants, power stations, and highways, finding that 75% of communities near these sites were predominately Black.

A Civil Rights Issue

Since then, newer research has found that the consistent proximity of communities of color to these hazardous environments is a systemic civil rights issue.

Redlining

For example, in the 1930s, redlining — a discriminatory mortgage appraisal practice by the federal Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) — denied people of color (who were located in urban areas) mortgages. This meant that they were prevented from buying homes in certain locations and unable to secure loans to renovate their houses. In the end, many individuals from these communities secured housing in areas classified “D” for hazardous.

This policy was repealed; however, its effects are still felt today. For instance, a 2022 study found a strong correlation between air pollution levels in 2010 and the historical patterns of redlining.

But that is not all; researchers have pointed to redlining as one factor behind the wealth disparities between Black and White Americans today. It has also been estimated that Black families have lost at least $212,000 in wealth over the past 40 years due to the discriminatory housing practice.

Consequently, this shows how this practice has continued to shape environmental exposure disparities in the United States.

Nevertheless, while wealth does contribute to an individual’s exposure to these pollutants, research suggests that the association between race and environmental hazards is much stronger.

This means environmental racism is a race issue primarily. After all, the geographical segmentation (and segregation) of communities is a fundamental implement of racism.

Impact of Environmental Racism

When it comes to environmental racism, communities of color primarily bear the disproportionate brunt of the air, water, and waste problems. As a result, these communities are more likely to experience drinking water violations in the United States when compared to White communities.

Research into this has shown that these toxins threaten these individuals’ endocrine, neurological, respiratory, and cardiovascular health.

Sperm Quality

Environmental exposure has also been found to negatively affect sperm quality. The research is not conclusive; however, it is suspected that environmental toxins such as pesticides, lead, air pollution and plasticizers are the cause.

Unfortunately, even though the burden of (exposure) risk is higher for men of color, research in this area is primarily conducted on White men, which highlights the limits of research in this field.

Children

Environmental racism also substantially impacts children due to their biological vulnerabilities. For example, a landmark 2007 study found that Black children were five times more likely to experience lead poisoning from proximity to waste than White children.

In addition, a different study found a higher prevalence of asthma, lead poisoning, and obesity in children exposed to environmental hazards.

Examples of Environmental Racism

Below calls out two higher profile instances of racism in the United States.

The Flint Water Crisis

In April 2014, Flint, Michigan, switched to the Flint River as a temporary drinking water source without implementing corrosion control. Within ten months, water collected by residences for sampling was discolored and showed rising water lead levels.

In September 2015, a blood analysis conducted on the children of Flint showed spiking lead levels, and a state of emergency was declared. However, within the 18 months it took for any action to be taken, at least 12 residents died from Legionnaires’ disease (a type of pneumonia), and many others experienced hair loss, skin conditions and other symptoms.

Dakota Access Pipeline

The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) is a 1,172-mile pipeline used to transport crude oil in the northern United States. It was announced to the public in June 2014 and construction began in June 2016. However, the pipeline’s proposed location was just half a mile from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

Encroachment on Native Territory

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe argued its construction violated Article II of the Fort Laramie Treaty, which guaranteed the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe “undisturbed use and occupation” of reservation lands surrounding the pipeline.

Initially, it was reported that the pipeline would cross the Missouri River near Bismarck; however, it was moved over concerns that an oil spill would contaminate the state capital’s drinking water.

Therefore, the pipeline was considered to pose a serious risk to the Tribe’s survival due to water contamination. In addition, building the DAPL would require the digging up of old burial grounds, sacred spots, and cultural resources.

Mass protests occurred from 2016 to 2017, however, the tribes were unable to change the policy, and the pipeline was built.

Environmental Racism Is a Global Issue

While the examples above speak to the American context, it’s important to recognize that due in part to globalization and technological advancements; environmental racism is a global issue. However, responsibility is far from equal.

After all, the Global North is responsible for 92% of excess global carbon emissions. Nevertheless, while they may carry more responsibility, many of the countries in the Global North are instead using the Global South as a dumping ground for toxic waste.

Take the disposal of waste electronic and electrical equipment (e-waste) as an example. The process is hazardous if not done correctly due to the toxins released. However, a 2014 study estimated that 75% to 80% of the 20–50 million tons generated yearly would be shipped to either Asia or Africa for recycling and disposal.

A different 2021 study focusing on the African context found that when these products were dismantled for valuable metals in informal settings, it resulted in significant human exposure to toxic substances. They also found that e-waste dismantling (and burning) was often conducted at e-waste sites located either inside or near homes.

As a result, children and other residents close to these activities continue to be exposed to toxic substances. Therefore, while environmental racism does impact communities of color across the world, those located in the Global South are facing even more harm.

How to Combat Environmental Racism

Action needs to be taken on both the national and global stage to tackle environmental racism. But what does this look like?

Fighting Environmental Racism

Action needs to be taken on both the national and global stage to tackle environmental racism. But what does this look like?:

  • Financial help: Firstly, both the public and global government bodies must accept that environmental and social issues are inextricably linked. From here, legal and financial resources need to be made available to those most affected by environmental exposure.
  • Greater inclusivity in the environmental movement. In addition, more effort needs to be made to make the environmental movement more inclusive — including academic studies into the effects of environmental exposure.
  • Support grassroots organizations. Lastly, more support needs to be given to grassroots movements fighting for environmental justice. After all, a global issue can not be solved alone.

A Word From Verywell

The fight for climate justice can feel like a tall order, but it’s important not to underestimate the impact you can have. Feelings of hopelessness are valid, but it’s important to know that you are not in this battle alone. If you’d find it more beneficial to have support in your activism, it may be helpful to pursue collective environmental action, such as outreach and advocacy.

In addition, if you are someone who has been impacted by environmental racism, it may be beneficial to contact a mental health professional for emotional support. In addition, you can reach out to others in your community for advice, support or perhaps start your own movement.

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