Introduction to Environmental Racism


In my last post, I detailed why we, as environmentalists, zero-waste and anti-oil advocates should care about racism– basically, the system survives off the existence of poverty, of misery, and of a disenfranchised working class. And communities of color are, in contrast with those that are white-skinned and Euro-American, disproportionately likely to wind up poor, depressed, working class, etc.

And according to the concept of environmental racism, communities of color are more likely to live and/or work in close proximity to toxic waste and areas with a higher concentrations of pollution.


Environmental racism refers to the institutional rules, regulations, policies or government and/or corporate decisions that deliberately target certain communities for locally undesirable land uses and lax enforcement of zoning and environmental laws, resulting in communities being disproportionately exposed to toxic and hazardous waste based upon race. Environmental racism is caused by several factors, including intentional neglect, the alleged need for a receptacle for pollutants in urban areas, and a lack of institutional power and low land values of people of color. It is a well-documented fact that communities of color and low-income communities are disproportionately impacted by polluting industries (and very specifically, hazardous waste facilities) and lax regulation of these industries.

From Pollution Issues:

Up to the late 1960s, racism was defined as a doctrine, dogma, ideology, or set of beliefs. The central theme of this doctrine was that race determined culture. Some cultures were deemed superior to others; therefore, some races were superior and others inferior. During the 1960s the definition of racism was expanded to include the practices, attitudes, and beliefs that supported the notion of racial superiority and inferiority. Such beliefs and practices produced racial discrimination.

However, researchers argue that to limit the understanding of racism to prejudicial and discriminatory behavior misses important aspects of racism. Racism is also a system of advantages or privileges based on race. In the American context, many of the privileges and advantages available to whites stem directly from racial discrimination directed at people of color. Therefore, racism results not only from personal ideology and behavior, but also from the personal thoughts and actions that are supported by a system of cultural messages and institutional policies and practices. Racism is thus more fully understood if one sees it as the execution of prejudice and discrimination coupled with power, privilege, and institutional support. It is aided and maintained by legal, penal, educational, religious, and business institutions, to name a few.

Environmental racism is an important concept that provided a label for some of the environmental activism occurring in minority and low-income communities. In particular, it links racism with environmental actions, experiences, and outcomes. In the broadest sense, environmental racism and its corollary, environmental discrimination, is the process whereby environmental decisions, actions, and policies result in racial discrimination or the creation of racial advantages. It arises from the interaction of three factors: (1) prejudicial belief and behavior, (2) the personal and institutional power to enact policies and actions that reflect one’s own prejudices, and (3) privilege, unfair advantages over others and the ability to promote one’s group over another. Thus, the term environmental racism, or environmental discrimination, is used to describe racial disparities in a range of actions and processes, including but not limited to the (1) increased likelihood of being exposed to environmental hazards; (2) disproportionate negative impacts of environmental processes; (3) disproportionate negative impacts of environmental policies, for example, the differential rate of cleanup of environmental contaminants in communities composed of different racial groups; (4) deliberate targeting and siting of noxious facilities in particular communities; (5) environmental blackmail that arises when workers are coerced or forced to choose between hazardous jobs and environmental standards; (6) segregation of ethnic minority workers in dangerous and dirty jobs; (7) lack of access to or inadequate maintenance of environmental amenities such as parks and playgrounds; and (8) inequality in environmental services such as garbage removal and transportation.

From the Food Empowerment Project:

When they hear about industrial pollution, people often think about factories with billowing smokestacks. However, the food industry, with its factory farms and slaughterhouses, can also be considered a major contributor of pollution that affects the health of communities of color and low-income communities, because more often than not they locate their facilities in the areas where these people live. “Swine CAFOs [Confined Animal Feeding Operations] are disproportionately located in communities of color and regions of poverty …” say Maria C. Mirabelli, Steve Wing, Stephen W. Marshall, and Timothy C. Wilcosky of the School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.[1]

Among the corporations that harm the environment and the health of communities of color and low-income communities are those that run industrial pig farms. Research has shown that these pig farms are responsible for both air and water pollution, mostly due to the vast manure lagoons they create to hold the enormous amount of waste from the thousands of pigs being raised for food. Residents who live near these factory farms often complain of irritation to their eyes, noses, and throats, along with a decline in the quality of life and increased incidents of depression, tension, anger, confusion, and fatigue.[2]

This is not an isolated example. The placement of these facilities is not always an intentional process on the part of industry leaders. Instead, because of the distinct connections between ethnicity and class in the United States, poor rural areas tend to house communities of color and the land in these areas is cheaper. According to sociologists Bob Bolin, Sara Grineski, and Timothy Collins of Arizona State University, “Land use, housing segregation, racialized employment patterns, financial practices, and the way that race permeates zoning, development, and bank lending processes” are also fundamental drivers of environmental racism.[4] North Carolina is one example, but similar patterns exist in most major agricultural areas.[3]

Corporations may also locate to these rural areas either believing that the residents do not have the political will and won’t present obstacles, or that these low-income residents need the jobs and will not complain. Environmental Justice activists consider the latter reason to be a form of economic extortion—having to accept the negative health consequences and adverse effects on the environment in order to have a job. This scenario is fortunately not a given with more frequent challenges being made to these injustices.

How does your environmentalism address institutional racism?