Environmental racism refers to the disproportionate distribution of environmental hazards and toxic facilities resulting from governmental or corporate policies and regulations that deliberately target poor and minority communities. The seminal 1987 study, Toxic Waste and Race in the United States, conducted by the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice, found that race was the most significant variable in deciding where hazardous waste facilities were to be located. Subsequent research has largely confirmed that race, even more than economic class, is the strongest predictor of placement for waste-producing facilities. In effect, environmental racism can be seen as mirroring existing patterns of social inequality; the most polluted communities tend to be the ones populated by minority residents of low socioeconomic status.
The disparate geographic distribution of environmental hazards means that toxic facilities emanating high levels of pollution are apt to be situated near neighborhoods with low property values and high minority populations. Individuals in these communities are more likely to be exposed to inordinately high levels of contamination and work in jobs that subject them to increased environmental risk. Furthermore, children are particularly vulnerable to health risks from higher levels of pollution; illnesses such as asthma, lead poisoning, leukemia, and encephalitis are being detected with increasing frequency among young children living in highly polluted regions. Whereas many of the most polluted areas can be found in and around urban neighborhoods—”cancer alley,” for example, is the vicinity along the Mississippi River near Baton Rouge, Louisiana— nuclear waste and other toxic materials and garbage are often disposed of on Native American reservations, which are particularly vulnerable because they are not subject to state jurisdiction. Environmental regulations on Native American lands are more lax, making them prime targets for nuclear waste disposal, landfills, and other toxic facilities.
Environmental justice advocates argue that toxic facilities tend to be placed in nonwhite communities because these are more likely to be impoverished areas where residents are disenfranchised, possess little political power, and offer the least amount of resistance. Furthermore, research suggests that minority communities receive less protection from the enforcement of environmental laws. According to a 1992 report in the National Law Journal, penalties for hazardous waste were 500 percent higher in white communities, and penalties for pollution law violations were almost 50 percent higher in white communities than in areas with large minority populations. Environmental justice advocates argue that this disparity, which has been found to occur regardless of whether communities are middle class or poor, is a result of governmental regulations that are enforced in a discriminatory manner.
Still, critics suggest that there is nothing discriminatory about the placement of hazardous waste facilities, arguing instead that market forces ultimately determine where toxic sites are located. As a result, incinerators, landfills, and other waste facilities tend to be found in areas where land is cheaper. These areas, in turn, are also where inexpensive housing is available for lower-income households. Hence, critics argue that toxic facilities are not disparately situated in poor and minority communities, but rather that poor people and people of color tend to move to those areas because they offer the most affordable housing. However, environmental justice activists are critical of the market forces approach, arguing that people in poor and minority neighborhoods do not make a freely rational choice to live in those areas where the risks from environmental hazards are most severe.
Advocates further argue that the effects of “NIMBYism” (based on an acronym for “not in my backyard”) have exacerbated the disparate effects of environmental hazards on racial minorities. While middle- and upper-class communities have exhibited the political power to stop the intrusion of hazardous waste facilities, these successes have led to the increased development of toxic sites in poor and minority neighborhoods. According to the 2001 Supreme Court decision in Alexander v. Sandoval, 532 U.S. 275, individuals are unable to sue to enforce federal regulations that prohibit disparate racial impacts. In other words, it is not sufficient to simply show harm or discriminatory impact as evidence of environmental racism. Instead, courts also require evidence of discriminatory intent, meaning individuals must prove that they were disproportionately affected by environmental harms resulting from acts of purposeful discrimination. Because most poor and minority communities lack the financial resources and political power needed to maintain a legal challenge against polluters, many environmental justice advocates argue that existing laws and regulations simply serve to maintain the status quo.
In hopes of effecting change, increasing support can be found within the environmental justice movement for grassroots activism that empowers traditionally passive and marginalized neighborhoods. Historically, environmental activists have fought to block the placement of hazardous sites without any communication or consultation from those residents who live in the communities that will be most affected by the presence of harmful toxins. However, grassroots environmental justice organizations are increasingly working with the people living in vicinities affected by environmental degradation. The goal is to encourage the active participation of residents in historically disenfranchised areas in the struggle against placing toxic facilities in their neighborhoods. As the fight against environmental racism continues to evolve at the grassroots level, the hope is that poor and minority residents living in marginalized communities will continue to have more prominent voices in the fight for environmental justice.
- Cole, Luke W. and Sheila R. Foster. 2001. From the Ground Up: Environmental Racism and the Rise of the Environmental Justice Movement. New York: New York University Press.
- Lester, James P., David W. Allen, and Kelly M. Hill. 2001. Environmental Injustice in the United States: Myths and Realities. Boulder, CO: Westview.
- Visgilio, Gerald R. and Diana M. Whitelaw, eds. 2003. Our Backyard: A Quest for Environmental Justice. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
- Westra, Laura and Bill E. Lawson, eds. 2001. Faces of Environmental Racism: Confronting Issues of Global Justice. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
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