Environmental Justice

Updated: Mar 22

We see the environment which surrounds us through the imperfect lens of our own perceptions, assumptions, and experiences. Unfortunately, the difference of skin color is not confined to merely a difference in perspective and assumption. There is a historical element to the propagation of difference and distance between races which influences our lives beyond whatever values or beliefs we possess. Racism is not merely a personal dislike or preference. Moreover, it is the discrimination by race coupled with authority.


For example, the phenomenon known as redlining only exists with the social authority possessed by government agencies and their influence over the direction and application of wealth. Redlining comes from policies of the New Deal in which maps were color-coded to indicate where it was allegedly safe to insure mortgages. The thought was that anywhere African-Americans lived and anywhere African-Americans lived nearby was a risky investment. Therefore, these areas were color-coded red to indicate to appraisers that these neighborhoods were too risky to insure mortgages. In short, African-Americans were restricted from the benefits of home-ownership for many decades by federal policy and were unable to build the equity which results. [1]

This phenomenon has had many consequences, not the least of which is the economic opportunities available to those who own their own property. In an NPR interview of Richard Rothstein, author of The Color of Law, he states, “On average, African-American incomes are about 60% of average white incomes. However, African-American wealth is about 5% of white wealth.”


Income can be likened to a river flowing into one’s bank account. Since African-Americans were more likely to rent their homes, that income flowed from their workplaces more or less directly to landlords. Wealth is more like a lake, in which money is stored and saved, growing with interest and investments to be handed down to subsequent generations. So, even though African-Americans would make steady income, that income would be restricted from becoming wealth by public policies through the mechanism of home-ownership.

It isn’t just about wealth either; it is also about the safety, health, and conditions of where we live, work, and play.


There are new fields arising that view today’s circumstances in light of historical decisions. The structure of these fields are interdisciplinary and draw knowledge from various sources. For example, the study of Environmental Justice draws in the perspectives garnered by knowledge of public health, government policy, environmental science, and the historical treatment of underrepresented communities.


The National Environmental Justice movement was born in rural Warren County, North Carolina. This mostly low-income, African-American county was chosen by the state to be the disposal site of 30,000 cubic yards of soil contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). After protests and over 500 arrests, Warren County and the Landfill became a national symbol for the environmental justice movement. It also led to national studies to be undertaken documenting relationships between the locations of commercial hazardous waste facilities, race, income level, home values, and social class. [2]


Examples such as this abound across the country, since the majority of waste disposal sites in the United States are borne disproportionately by low-income people of color. [2]


Chester, PA is another community which has been struggling with this phenomenon that has become broadly known as environmental racism. Zulene Mayfield is a resident of Chester, PA and speaks of the realities of the community’s experience with environmental racism. She gave a talk at the ecoWURD Environmental Justice Summit and in a moving remark to a small audience, she says, “Now I want you to think about what the environment is, and if I ask ten people here, they’re gonna talk about some trees, some water somewhere, or some far away land.” She continues, “That’s not the environment we come from. Our environment is concrete, asphalt, buses; and that same environment deserves to be protected.” [4] [5]



Sources and Further Reading:


[1] https://www.npr.org/2017/05/03/526655831/a-forgotten-history-of-how-the-u-s-government-s egregated-america


[2] Lessons In Environmental Justice: From Civil Rights to Black Lives Matter and Idle No More


[3] https://www.patagonia.com/stories/shes-taking-out-the-trash/story-93950.html


[4] ecoWURD Summit - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=74ovCR0G8h0


[5] Laid to Waste: A Chester Neighborhood Fights for its Future - A Documentary https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bfPQVpQ2kbg


About the Author

Daniel serves as the education coordinator for the Energy & Community team in Des Moines, IA. In this capacity, he is interested in the history of our relationship with the natural world and how our perceptions change over time. He is one of the hosts of the Green Iowa Pod, which is Green Iowa AmeriCorps' platform for environmental education material. Previously, he studied biomedical engineering and served in the Peace Corps as a high school teacher in Cameroon.

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