Environmental racism occurs when minority communities are disproportionately exposed to environmental risks. Equality for HER intern, Emma Farina breaks down the basics and provides ways for everyone to get involved. Art by Sarah Epperson.



Terms & Definitions

climate change
Climate change is the general warming of the earth’s atmosphere. It results in stronger weather patterns, cold and warm ones alike, and contributes to more extreme storms and droughts.
environmental equity
Environmental equity occurs when everyone shares responsibility for taking care of the environment. No people or companies are held to higher or lower standards for any particular reason, rather, the rules are standard across the board. Distributes environmental harms equally.
environmental justiceEnvironmental justice is the response to environmental racism. It is the fair treatment to all people regardless of any group they may be a part of or identify as. Eliminates environmental harms.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)This is the governmental system in America whose purpose is to create rules and regulations to assist people and businesses in the care of the environment. Does not always protect local or individualized situations.
environmental racism
Environmental racism occurs when marginalized communities are disproportionately exposed to environmental risks and/or have a disproportionate lack of access to ecologically friendly goods and services.
Grassroots is a form of organizing and activism that works from the root of the problem to bring about change.
human rightsHuman rights are rights that should belong to all people regardless of any status they may have. Ex. race, origin, gender, sexual and gender identity/expression, disability, language, etc.
pollutionA pollutant is a substance that is harmful to the environment, while pollution is the act of releasing one or more of these substances into the environment.
wasteWaste comes in different forms including, but not limited to, hazardous waste (byproducts of production, batteries, lead, etc.), solid waste (plastics), biodegradable waste (cardboard, food), and liquid waste (oil, cleaning chemicals, displaced water, etc).
World Water CrisisThere is a global water scarcity issue because most of the water in the world is not drinkable. Lots of people either don’t have access to water, or a way to filter unclean water and make it drinkable. The crisis is mostly because of our inability to distribute water, not the lack of water.

Historical Overview

Consumerism and climate change are the two main causes for environmental racism. Businesses, people, and governments want to make the most money possible, meaning that the way things are produced globally are done in the most cost efficient ways. These ways are almost always the most damaging to the environment, so they are done in low income and minority areas. Minority and low income groups have less influence on government policy and policy makers which means they are often ignored and not given everything they need and deserve. However, regarding the environment, race is almost always a larger predictor of pollution or exploitation than class. White people in America who make only $10K annually are less likely to live in polluted areas than Black people who make $50K-60K annually.

The city of Flint, Michigan is in the top ten largest cities by population in Michigan. It is almost 60% Black and 40% of it’s resident live in poverty. In 2014, the water supply to Flint, MI was declared unsafe to drink because of the high lead levels in the water.  The water supply in Flint was changed from a source in Detroit, to the Flint River, and this switch caused the pipes to corrode because they neglected to treat the new water source, leaving the water supply high in lead. The government tampered with water test results to make it appear that the water was safe, despite many children having very high lead levels in their blood and the water being visibly unsafe to drink. Multiple local and state officials were charged with crimes in regards to the water crisis in Flint, and state and federal aid was given to the city. However, the water is still unsafe for all residents, and new pipes and water supply has not been provided to the residents of Flint.  Mari Copeny, an 11 year old resident of Flint, has worked as an advocate for Flint by collecting and distributing bottles water and school supplies for children.

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Another example of environmental racism is the 85 miles of Louisiana coastline along the Mississippi River which has been coined Cancer Alley. Residents along some parts of this stretch of land are 700 times more likely to die or have cancer than the national average, and this is because of the almost 200 chemical plants that have been built in the 50 years. These plants produce chemicals that go into making many consumer goods, and the production puts many chemicals into the air. Residents who have no option but to stay where they are, because it is a low income and minority area, are forced to breathe this air everyday. The area’s low income becomes a harmful cycle, making it even harder to try to move away. Once they or a family member is sick, the medical bills skyrocket, meaning they have even less available to get by day to day, and less of a chance to leave the toxic areas. Robert Taylor, a resident of the most highly polluted area, has taken this to court, after the EPA officially released that the pollution in the air was a likely carcinogen, causing the high rates of cancer in the area. He and his community members are suing the chloroprene factory in the area to reduce pollution levels.

This is not only an American issue; there is evidence of environmental racism worldwide, and throughout the world there are people and organizations fighting for justice. A South Korean company called Daewoo  bought a lease for almost half of the land of Madagascar to grow food that would get sent back to South Korea, taking away an enormous amount of space and resources from the residents of Madagascar. However, farmers and local organizations came together to rise against the government and Daewoo, until the newly elected President of Madagascar cancelled the deal in 2009. Similarly, in the state of Bihar, India, the government allowed multiple asbestos factories to open in highly populated, agriculture based communities. The pollution and byproducts of these factories were directly affecting almost 30,000 people until a group of school children protested one factory and eventually got it shut down. This lead to the cancellation of production at all of the asbestos factories in the area. An organization dedicated to the cause is the Observatory of Mining Conflicts in Latin America, which is a group that helps to protect communities in Central and South America that have been negatively affected by mining. It also works to create public policy to prevent future mining in rural communities. Although much progress has been made, there is still a long way to go.  Stories like this are increasingly common, and the trials and efforts of local residents, individuals, and grassroots activism play a vital role.








Movies To Watch and Discussion Questions

Flow: For the Love of Water

In what ways can people raise awareness of the many water crises experienced throughout the world?

Is water a human right? If yes, can water become a free resource, or can it only be provided if it is paid for by consumers? If it is free, would the demand overpower the supply we have access to? If it is paid for, how would the cost and supply be decided?

Come Hell or High Water

How much right does the government have to rebuild on land that they owned, even if that land is sacred to certain people(s)?

This film follows Derrick Evans for a decade. At what point do you give in or give up when the fight seems to be stagnant? What things are you willing to fight for or against for more than ten years?

How do natural disasters disproportionately affect minority and low income areas?

Urban Roots

What is Urban Farming? Does Urban Farming overall help or hurt the community?

In what ways could Urban Farming cause harm to or be an obstacle for low income areas?

Books To Read

Toxic Communities by Dorceta Taylor

Garbage Wars by David Pellow

From the Ground Up by Luke W. Cole and Shelia R. Foster

Other Resources

This interactive map allows you to see race and income data anywhere in the US http://www.justicemap.org/

This worldwide environmental justice map allows you to see stories from around the world of grassroots organizations who are fighting environmental racism in their areas http://chej.org/2015/03/30/world-wide-environmental-justice-map/

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