Understanding Environmental Racism and How It Can Make People Sick


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Picture this: It’s a sunny day, the air is fresh and the weather is just right. You decide to take a walk through your neighborhood. Or maybe you take your kids or your dog to a nearby park to play.

This may sound like a typical spring afternoon, but for many people, a day like this isn’t an option. Those living in communities with overwhelming air pollution and no nearby green spaces are missing out on much more than fun in the sun — specifically, an equal opportunity for a healthy life, as these living conditions often lead to higher rates of health issues such as asthma and cancer.

This is called environmental racism, a system of oppression that often goes overlooked. For those affected by it, however, environmental racism is literally all around them, in the air they breathe and the water they drink.

What is environmental racism?

When you hear the word “racism” you may think of one individual discriminating against another because of the color of that person’s skin. But racism is perpetuated by decades-old systems and affects entire communities.

Environmental racism is a term used to describe pervasive policies and practices in government and private industry regarding pollution, housing and more that have negatively affected communities of color.

Civil rights activist Ben Davis coined the term “environmental racism” in the early 1980s after the state of North Carolina dumped soil contaminated with cancer-causing chemicals into a poor Black farming community. This is just one type of environmental racism — communities of color are often concentrated in areas with substandard housing or areas located near pollution sources such as toxic waste sites, landfills, chemical plants or major roadways. Research has shown that these toxins put children at greater risk for asthma, lead poisoning and obesity. Some studies reveal a major link between air pollution and neurological disorders.

“Environmental racism is an environmental practice, or a system, or policy, or even just an interaction between institutions of power and racially marginalized groups — particularly Black, Brown and Indigenous communities — that directly or indirectly disadvantages those groups,” says Maria Dozier, who serves as an ambassador and community organizer for the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability.

Environmental racism is about decision-making, says Shauntice Allen, Ph.D., M.A., an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. It’s about how land is used, where facilities are placed and how those facilities are monitored. “Race plays a significant role in how those decisions are made,” Allen says.

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Dozier adds that environmental racism isn’t just about BIPOC communities experiencing disproportionate exposure to “the bads” – such as pollution. “It also includes a disproportionate lack of access to environmental ‘goods’ such as green space, transportation and health care,” she says.

Root causes

Modern environmental racism can be traced back to the nearly century-old practice of redlining. To help boost the economy in the wake of the Great Depression, during the New Deal era government-insured mortgages were established for homeowners. The government set out color-coded maps to indicate which areas were worthy of loans. Most of the neighborhoods marked in red – and thus deemed unworthy – were predominantly inhabited by Black residents.

“Redlining and putting particular types of industry in particular types of communities is a real thing that didn’t happen by happenstance,” Allen says. “That was something that was very carefully planned and designed.”

This meant that not only were Black areas not invested in, but poorer areas were seen as better places to locate industries, many of which were bad for the environment and for the humans who live there. Redlining has also resulted in few grocery stores or healthcare facilities being built in predominantly Black areas, which makes it harder for residents to stay healthy.

“Multiple legacies of discrimination, including redlining and land use decision-making, have shaped the current spatial distributions of pollution sources among diverse communities,” the authors of a 2022 study in Environmental and Technology Letters wrote. “The resulting locations of emissions infrastructure, including roads, rail lines, industrial facilities, ports and other major sources of pollution, are typically long-lived.” And that same research found a strong correlation between air pollution levels in 2010 and the historical patterns of redlining.

Researchers have also pointed to redlining as one factor behind the wealth disparities between Black and white Americans today. Over the past 40 years, Black families have lost out on at least $212,000 in personal wealth generated by property value increases due to redlining — this alongside the fact that there is strong evidence that people who are better off financially live longer and with fewer chronic illness.

The Fair Housing Act of 1968 outlawed redlining, but the effects are still evident today. “Environmental racism doesn’t live in a vacuum,” Dozier says “It’s very much predicated on historic policies and practices that have changed racial landscapes or racial environments.”

Health impact

The devastating loss of life in 2005 in the wake of Hurricane Katrina is one of the most tragic examples of the impact of environmental racism. The majority of the estimated 1,392 people who died in the storm were Black people living in congested, unprotected communities in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward.

“What Katrina uncovered was a truth that those of us fighting [against] environmental racism already knew,” Robert Bullard writes in his book Race, Place and Environmental Justice After Hurricane Katrina. “That truth is that minorities and the poor are more likely than all other groups to be underprepared and underserved and to be living in unsafe, substandard housing,”

And being disproportionately victimized in weather events is just one example of how environmental racism affects people’s health. In the United States, people of color are exposed to dangerous air pollutants at much higher rates than their white peers, according to a 2021 study published in the journal Science Advances. That study found that BIPOC communities accounted for 75% of the total exposure to pollutants from major sources such as construction, power plants, industry, cars and trucks, and agriculture, even though they make up significantly less than that percentage of the population.

Nilka Martell, organizer of the grassroots Loving the Bronx, says that for her, environmental justice is personal: Like many children in this borough of New York City, her son has asthma. Rates are higher here for many reasons, including air pollution and other environmental hazards. One of the biggest victories the group has achieved since it was started in 2011 was $10.3 million to reconstruct two parks in the area, so kids would have a safe place to run around.

what is environmental racism

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But the health hazards aren’t limited to respiratory illnesses: In addition to studies that have found a higher prevalence of asthma, lead poisoning and obesity in children exposed to environmental hazards, and links between air pollution and neurological disorders, research also shows that outdoor air pollution may negatively affect sperm quality. So as communities of color bear the brunt of air, water and waste problems, their health suffers the consequences.

Examples

“Vital to understanding environmental racism is understanding that this is a global issue,” Dozier says. “This is something that truly happens everywhere.”

Below are just a few examples in the U.S.:

  • Flint, Michigan. Flint is a majority-Black city where 40% of people live in poverty. In April 2014, city officials switched to the Flint River as a temporary drinking water source but failed to implement corrosion control. In less than a year, water collected by residences for sampling was discolored and had unhealthy lead levels. Eventually, a state of emergency was declared, but it was too late: The Detroit Free Press reported that during a 17-month period in 2014 and 2015 there were 91 confirmed cases of Legionnaires’ disease – a severe type of pneumonia — and at least 12 deaths. The tainted water also may have led to hair loss, skin rashes and other health issues, according to a report from The Guardian.
  • The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). This 1,172-mile pipeline used to transport crude oil in the northern United States was built just half a mile from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s land, despite mass protests from 2016 to 2017. The position of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is that DAPL violates Article II of the Fort Laramie Treaty, which guarantees the “undisturbed use and occupation” of reservation lands surrounding the location of the pipeline. The Tribe declared that the pipeline poses a serious risk to their survival due to possible water contamination and because building the DAPL required the digging up of old burial grounds, sacred spots, and cultural resources. Many Native Nations, along with non-Native allies, celebrities and several politicians joined the DAPL protesters but the pipeline was built nonetheless.
  • Jackson, Mississippi. The water crisis in Jackson is still plaguing the citizens of this predominantly Black city. In 2022, the issue made national news, even though disruptions to Jackson’s water services have been a problem for years. Last August, after a period of heavy rainfall, the city’s main water treatment plant nearly collapsed. Most of Jackson lost running water for several days. People had to wait in lines for water to drink, cook, bathe and flush toilets. Many residents still don’t have consistent running water or are under boil-water notices for weeks at a time.
  • Cancer Alley. In Louisiana, an area located between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, which consists mostly of Black, impoverished communities, has been dubbed “Cancer Alley” because its rates of the disease are significantly higher than in other parts of the country. Along the approximately 130-mile winding corridor along the Mississippi River, there are more than 200 industrial facilities that release more than five tons of air pollution per year. Nearly every census tract between Baton Rouge and New Orleans ranks in the top 5% nationally for cancer risk from toxic air pollution and in the top 10% for respiratory hazards.

Fight for justice

Knowing that environmental racism is a global issue may lead you to feel powerless to do anything about it. But Dozier believes there’s something every one of us can do to make a difference. She recommends considering the Climate Action Venn Diagram developed by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson (climate change will also disproportionately affect people of color.)

With this, you’ll ask yourself three questions:

  • What are you good at? Maybe you’re a writer or a teacher or perhaps you’re skilled at organizing people or raising money.
  • What is the work that needs doing? There are so many facets to environmental racism – climate change, water injustice, food injustice and wealth disparities. Pick one your most passionate about.
  • What brings you joy? “In order to sustain movements, there needs to be an element of happiness, of joy and hope in what we do, so that we don’t get burnt out,” Dozier says.

Try to find an action that’s at the intersection of these three factors—this is your way to effect change. “You don’t need to be the nonprofit, you don’t need to be the elected official, you don’t even need funding,” Martell says. “Does it make it easier? Absolutely. But if you have a vision, and you have a plan, and you can organize, and you can get people to really support – it can be done.”

Allen, who serves as president of the board of directors for Greater-Birmingham Alliance to Stop Pollution, or G.A.S.P, adds that joining local environmental justice groups or even just following them on social media is a great way to stay informed about what’s going on in your community and to be aware of opportunities to speak out regarding decisions that could impact your neighborhood. “Oftentimes, I think some of these groups are seen as being very elitist and white,” Allen says, “but there are a lot of people of color who are involved in all of these organizations. There are a lot of Black women who are involved in boots-on-the-ground work and being advocates for their own community.”

Here are some local and national organizations to check out:

  • Greater-Birmingham Alliance to Stop Pollution, or G.A.S.P strives to advance healthy air and environmental justice in the Greater Birmingham area through education, advocacy and collaboration.
  • Loving the Bronx promotes social and environmental justice in part by building community through the use of parks, open spaces and waterways throughout the Bronx. The group is currently pushing to cap the Cross Bronx Expressway, a major highway that cuts through densely populated working class neighborhoods. Thanks in part to the work of Loving the Bronx, the city is embarking on a landmark study to reimagine this expressway, including examining the feasibility of decking sections of the highway. “People thought we were crazy,” Martell says. “Everybody that we spoke with was like, ‘Who’s going to pay for that?!” The study is funded by a $2 million U.S. Department of Transportation Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE) grant.
  • Black Millenials for Flint is a national environmental justice and civil rights organization bringing together like-minded organizations to collectively take action and advocate against the crisis of lead exposure in African American & Latinx communities throughout the nation.
  • The Indigenous Environmental Network is an alliance of Indigenous people with the shared mission of protecting the environment while promoting economic livelihoods and building healthy, sustaining Indigenous communities.
  • Women’s Voices for the Earth envisions and drives action toward a world free from the impacts of toxic chemicals and a world where the planet and communities are thriving, and a person’s gender, race, sexuality, zip code, income level or job does not determine health outcomes.
  • You can also search for environmental groups near you.
Headshot of Javacia Harris Bowser

Javacia Harris Bowser is a freelance journalist, blogger, and entrepreneur based in Birmingham, Ala., and the founder of See Jane Write, an award-winning membership organization and website for women who write and blog. A proud graduate of the journalism programs at the University of Alabama and the University of California at Berkeley, Bowser has written for a number of outlets including USA Today, Good Grit magazine, Birmingham magazine, The Birmingham Times, B-Metro magazine, and Birmingham’s NPR affiliate WBHM 90.3 FM. 





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