Before we get started, it is important to recognize the history leading up to now. The United States Environmental Protection Agency has organized a timeline of notable dates in environmental justice history; visit their website to learn about the events occurring from 1968 through 2016.
We have begun to shift our view from equality, not seeing color and providing the same opportunities to all groups of people, to equity, the recognition of the differences that affect diverse groups of people and allocating resources appropriately. A big word in the world of social justice as of late is intersectionality, which reaches across gender, socio-economic class, health, race, and so much more. The term ‘environmental racism’ has been widely used since 1982, but as climate change continues to exacerbate environmental problems and social movements become strong, more situations of environmental racism are at the front of our minds.
The difference between environmental racism and environmental justice
Environmental racism as a term was initially made popular by Dr. Benjamin Chavis, the director of the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice in 1982. This was in response to the siting of a chemical landfill in Warren County, North Carolina. The term was later more explicitly defined by Robert Bullard. In his book, Dumping with Dixie, Bullard defines environmental racism as “any policy, practice or directive that differentially affects or disadvantages (where intended or unintended) individuals, groups or communities based on race.”
Environmental justice has a less defined point of origin. The Environmental Protection Agency cites the environmental justice movement as coinciding with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, starting with the Memphis Sanitation Strike in 1968. Memphis garbage workers were advocating for safer working conditions and fair pay, these protestors were joined by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and it became the first time African Americans mobilized in large numbers against environmental injustices. However, it is widely accepted that the protest against the Warren County, North Carolina polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) landfill was the spark that started the Environmental Justice Movement. The situation in Warren County is the second event where a large group of African Americans mobilized in protest against an environmental injustice.
The difference comes down to environmental racism being the act, and environmental justice being the response.
Recent examples of environmental racism
As people of color began to speak out against injustices during the Civil Rights Movement, problems extended beyond drinking fountains and into the explicit and implicit actions taken to systematically victimize their communities and the environments in which they live. Acts of environmental racism still take place, and a few are noted below. While these are only three cases, they do exemplify some of the environmental racism that these communities face.
‘Cancer Alley’ refers to the portion of the Mississippi River that stretches between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. One of the most heavily polluted communities within Cancer Alley is St. Gabriel, with a population just over 7,000 in 2019. Within 10 miles of the city stand 30 large petrochemical plants. It is estimated that out of every 10 homes, there are 1-2 people who have died of cancer.
Since the 1990s, the community of St. Gabriel has been pushing for more amenities and control over the petrochemical plants that had invaded their homes. They have stopped the Apex Oil Company’s 500-acre expansion, shut down a hazardous waste incinerator, and gained more amenities for their town. However, some companies just outside of the town limits are still pushing for expansion, the results of which will spill over into St. Gabriel and other surrounding communities.
By now we have all at least heard of the water contamination in Flint, Michigan, but many may be unfamiliar with the specifics of the situation. In 2014, the city of Flint, Michigan began using the Flint River as its primary water source but did not use proper treatment. This exposed the majority African American community to dangerous bacteria and lead. Individuals experienced hair loss, cancer, Legionnaires disease, and various skin conditions. The city did not take action for 18 months, and the city was still distributing water to its residents up until April of 2018. On November 10, 2021 a judge approved a $626 million settlement for the residents of Flint who were exposed to the lead-contaminated water.
Upon review, it was found that minority communities in San Joaquin Valley had substantially higher concentrations of arsenic in their drinking water compared to nearby communities that had lower minority populations and had a higher number of homeowners. Arsenic is a naturally occurring chemical in groundwater and usually occurs at generally safe levels. However, concentrations can be elevated by agricultural activities. Not only is more arsenic released through irrigation and drainage systems, but high evapotranspiration in that region concentrates the arsenic in surface water and shallow groundwater.
Environmental racism is an issue that has broad implications and needs more advocates. While it may seem impossible for an individual that doesn’t even live near the affected area, just learning about and sharing information can have an impact. We need to have these open and honest conversations. The theme of 2022’s Black History Month is Black Health and Wellness, and we all know how important our local environment is to our health. Supporting affected communities and their local environment has cyclical benefits that cannot be overlooked.
I would like to conclude by acknowledging that I am a white woman sharing information on cases of environmental racism. This means that I am statistically less likely to be affected by these issues at the scale that non-white communities experience. Please, use the information that I have gathered here as a jumping off point for your own learning. We all have a responsibility to expand our knowledge and worldview. Here is an article that further explains what environmental racism is and how it works.
Baurick, T. (2019, October, 30). Polluter’s Paradise: Welcome to “Cancer Alley,” Where Toxic Air Is About to Get Worse. ProPublica. https://www.propublica.org/article/welcome-to-cancer-alley-where-toxic-air-is-about-to-get-worse
Environmental Justice History. (n.d.). United States Department of energy, Office of Legacy Management. https://www.energy.gov/lm/services/environmental-justice/environmental-justice-history#:~:text=The%20initial%20environmental%20justice%20spark,of%20toxic%20waste%20along%20roadways.
Environmental Justice Timeline. (n.d.). Environmental Protection Agency. https://www.epa.gov/environmentaljustice/environmental-justice-timeline#:~:text=The%20environmental%20justice%20movement%20was,environmental%20protection%20in%20their%20communities.&text=The%20Civil%20Rights%20Movement%20of,families%2C%20their%20communities%20and%20themselves.
Equity vs. Equality: What’s the Difference? (2020, November 5). George Washington University, Milken Institute School of Public Health. https://onlinepublichealth.gwu.edu/resources/equity-vs-equality/
Hasler, Claire. (1994). The Proposed Environmental Justice Act: “I Have a (Green) Dream”. University of Puget Sound Law Review, 17(417): 417-472. https://digitalcommons.law.seattleu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1423&context=sulr
Lebby, S. (2021, October 12). The History of Environmental Justice in the United States. Treehugger. https://www.treehugger.com/environmental-justice-definition-and-us-history-5180104
Millennium Summit, 6-8 September 2000, New York. (n.d.). United Nations. https://www.un.org/en/conferences/environment/newyork2000
Peña-Parr, V. (2020, August 4). The Complicated History of Environmental Racism. http://news.unm.edu/news/the-complicated-history-of-environmental-racism
Siting of Hazardous Waste Landfills And Their Correlation With Racial And Economic Status of Surrounding Communities. (1983, June 1). United States General Accounting Office. http://archive.gao.gov/d48t13/121648.pdf
Skelton, R. and Miller V. (2016, March 17). The Environmental Justice Movement. Natural
Resources Defense Council. https://www.nrdc.org/stories/environmental-justice-movement
Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States: A National report on the Racial and Socio-Economic Characteristics of Communities with Hazardous Waste Sites. (1987). United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice. https://www.nrc.gov/docs/ML1310/ML13109A339.pdf
Ramirez, Ivana. (2021, April 22). 10 Examples of Environmental Racism and How it Works. Yes Magazine. https://www.yesmagazine.org/environment/2021/04/22/environmental-racism-examples
About the Author
Bri Hull is the Communications Associate at the Tallgrass Prairie Center. Originally from Kansas City, Missouri, Bri came to Iowa to attend Wartburg College. In her time in Iowa she developed an interest in environmental science and stayed to learn more about ways she can help her community. In her time with Green Iowa AmeriCorps, Bri hopes to learn how to become more green and how to reach out to her community to do the same.