Environmental Racism Is Everybody’s Problem — Here Are 5 Ways to Fight It Right Now

updated Apr 22, 2021
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LONDON, UK - February 15, 2019: Protestors with banners at a Youth strike for climate march in central London

Natural resources, such as water and even the very air we breathe in this country are a matter of inequality — and this has become a matter of life and death.

Take the residents of St. James Parish, Louisiana, a place dubbed as “Cancer Alley,” who are 95 percent more at risk of getting cancer due to air pollution in the area, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The 85-mile stretch along the Mississippi River is an industrial hub, home to approximately 150 petrochemical facilities that are emitting over 300,000 tons of particulates that cause respiratory illnesses in predominantly Black neighborhoods. Half the children of households near the Denka chemical plant suffer from headaches and nosebleeds. And this is not a unique story: many Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and Asian communities across the nation are living near factories emitting toxic waste that make them at greater risk of chronic illnesses such as asthma, as well as heart disease and strokes. More than half the people in this country who live next to hazardous waste are people of color.

All of these issues became that much more marked during the COVID-19 pandemic when people scoured stores for medical-grade masks that would act as a barrier between a person’s lungs and a potentially deadly virus. Environmental racism rears its ugly head here, too: A recent study found an association between air pollution over many years with an 11 percent increase in mortality from COVID-19. Considering that in the U.S., 14 million people of color live in counties with high air pollution, it’s important to consider the role environmental racism could be playing in the disproportionate toll the COVID-19 pandemic has taken on Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities, who are at a higher risk of COVID-related hospitalization or death than their white counterparts. 

While the fight is far from new, it has never been more important for people to fight for environmental justice, which focuses on tackling issues like air pollution, water contamination, and land dispossession that plague Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and Asian communities, and are often compounded by the worsening global climate crisis. On April 7, the Director of the Environmental Protection Agency, Michael Regan, issued a directive for all of the EPA’s offices to prioritize environmental justice. That doesn’t mean the fight against environmental racism is over — and whether or not your neighborhood is directly affected, you can get involved in the cause to help neighbors and communities alike. 

What is environmental racism?

According to Julie Sze, Ph.D., a professor of American Studies at University of California, Davis, and the founder of the school’s Environmental Justice Project, environmental racism is an umbrella term covering local actions of decades past that linked environmental issues to racial or tribal identity.

“It’s some category of injustice, or hierarchy, or racism [that] shapes environmental harms,” said Sze. “Environmental pollution is linked to some kind of category of racial disparity, racial identity but also tribal.”

The modern environmental justice movement dates back to at least 1979, when attorney Linda McKeever Bullard sued a waste management company for attempting to place a landfill in her middle-class Houston neighborhood of Northern Manor, which was 82 percent Black. Bean v. Southwestern Waste Management was the first lawsuit of its kind to explicitly connect race and environmental degradation under the umbrella of civil rights. Using Houston neighborhoods as a case study, Bullard’s husband, sociologist Dr. Robert Bullard started surveying the state of environmental racism in Texas, and later expanded his studies to the entire American South in the 1980s.

The issue is pervasive, and affects many people in different ways. While Bullard’s studies of toxic waste sites found that municipal waste facilities were disproportionately placed in majority Black neighborhoods in Texas, hundreds of uranium ore mines were erected on the Navajo reservation from the 1950s to the mid-1980s. Navajo miners were not given adequate protection on the job and the heavily polluted air caused lung cancer in workers. Mines also depleted the water on the reservation, and a nuclear accident in 1978 contaminated the river and exposed the people and their homes to radiation. 

Now, many Indigenous communities who live on the coast and rely on the waters to make a living and provide their families with food are facing the issue of ocean acidification. The ocean naturally absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and then processes it to become hydrogen ions which increases the pH balance of the water, but as carbon dioxide levels rapidly increase the ocean is getting increasingly acidic. Species like salmon and clams are dying and being poisoned in large numbers as the pH levels of the waters drop, which is bad news for communities like The Quinault tribe of Washington who rely on these animals for both dietary needs and spiritual traditions. On top of that, the Quinault people will likely soon be forced to move from an area their ancestors have inhabited for centuries, as the sea levels rise due to climate change — yet another instance of the growing environmental refugee crisis

How does environmental racism impact communities of color?

The horrors of environmental racism usually cause communities to face land, water, and air degradation, and residents regularly experience health issues like respiratory illness due to the high rates of pollution and contamination in these areas.

Latinx children are forced to miss over 100,000 school days per year due to high numbers of asthma attacks. Fifty-one percent of Hispanic people were more likely to live in areas with high levels of ozone, an air pollutant, than white people. Black Americans were three times more likely to die from asthmatic complications in comparison to their white counterparts. Black children, regardless of poverty level and other socioeconomic factors, are two to six times more likely to have high amounts of lead in their bloodstream. Furthermore, because of redlining — the historic process of housing, schooling, and infrastructure segregation in America — air pollution and extreme heat are “are killing inner-city residents at a higher rate than almost all other causes.” 

In his book “The Racial Contract,” philosopher Charles Mills delves into the idea of “Black Trash” as a framework in which pollution in Black communities is expected and deemed appropriate solely because Black people live there. Mills explains that this factor of disposability and state negligence is built into the ongoing racial contract forced onto Black people by a white supremacist society.

“In entering these (dark) spaces, one is entering a region normatively discontinuous with white political space, where the rules are different in ways ranging from differential funding (school resources, garbage collection, infrastructural repair) to the absence of police protection,” wrote Mills.

Systemic racial and economic inequality only make the issue worse, Sze explained. As a result, people outside of the communities harmed by environmental racism normalize things like lead poisoning and asthma in low-income communities and communities of color as a natural product of their environment.

“The idea of disposability, expendability, whose life, whose communities, whose bodies are meant to matter and whose aren’t is deeply tied to race and racism,” Sze, the author of the award-winning book “Noxious New York,” said.

Is your home trying to kill you?

Unsurprisingly, the fact that marginalized neighborhoods are often pumped with toxins, air pollutants, and sewage waste, and are subject to constant state violence makes it hard for residents to develop a good relationship with the physical space of home. Low-income housing is rarely maintained and often has an excess of lung irritants like mold, dust, and animal droppings. High levels of lead poisoning can cause permanent brain damage, learning difficulties, hearing loss, and behavioral issues, which means children of color are often robbed of the opportunity to feel nurtured and comfortable at home or at school. Indigenous peoples are constantly fighting to not be displaced on their own sovereign lands in the face of corporate interests, such as the proposed Keystone XL and Line 3 pipelines. Families in areas with severe water contamination can’t even use the water in their own homes; in Flint, Michigan, the crisis dates back to April 2014.

“We have kids here starting school that have never known what life is like to turn on the tap to get a drink of water, a whole generation of kids that have been exposed to toxic water,” Mari Copeny, also known as, “Little Miss Flint,” told Elle in 2019. “There are adults that are so afraid of water, they would rather take sponge baths using bottled water instead of getting in the shower. We still have people sick from the effects of the bad water.”

Environmental racism robs many households of the ability to fully experience the joys of living and having a home, as residents in affected neighborhoods are forced to look at their surroundings as an active threat to their physical and mental health, instead of as a place to rest and take refuge. And as Sze points out, it is no coincidence that these neighborhoods are often home to people of color.

“The idea of home as being this protective safe space has been systematically denied for people of color, specifically Black and Indigenous people in the U.S.,” she said, referring to chronic levels of over-policing and police brutality that overlap with environmental racism. “Home is not a safe refuge. It’s where the state, the forces of violence go in and remind you that you have no safe space and that’s the constant re-enactment of terror and violence.”

How to Join the Environmental Justice Movement:

There are plenty of ways to get involved in the fight against environmental racism, whether it directly affects your home and life, or as an ally. 

If your home is directly impacted by environmental racism:

Check in with fellow community leaders and members for steps on how to organize within your neighborhood. There may be existing federal or state legislation to help you fight this unfair treatment in court. And although landlords and affordable housing agencies are notorious for ignoring their tenants’ needs and perpetuate widespread discrimination against low-income tenants and tenants of color, it is still encouraged that you report issues to your state housing committees, which at the very least can be used as evidence in legal cases.

Center the areas being affected right now.

If you’re fortunate enough to live in an area that is currently at lower risk of environmental racism, Sze suggests that you lend your support to vulnerable communities that are amongst the first to be affected by the environment. Identify your local climate and environmental justice organizations are, and ask them what resources they need to advocate for themselves. 

Be sure not to speak over those affected.

It can be tempting to want to swoop in and fix a problem, or set up an organization from scratch. Doing so might have good intentions, but it erases the work that people have already done for decades. As you get involved, be sure to take directions from activists and organizers on the frontlines: These are the people who must lead, be included in relevant decision-making, and most importantly, speak for themselves, said Sze. 

Call your lawmakers.

As America continues to grapple with the realities of a racialized climate crisis and environmentalism, the environmental justice activists continue to advocate for their communities’ needs to be addressed by the government. Get in touch with a local environmental legislator to stay up to date on what your state is doing to fight for environmental justice and hold them accountable in supporting key initiatives like the Green New Deal that center communities vulnerable to climate change and racial inequity rather than corporate interests. 

Remember that this is everybody’s problem.

Fighting for environmental justice everywhere means ensuring that someone’s access to necessities like clean air and water and safe housing aren’t determined by their race or socioeconomic status, according to Sze. She said that a big part of the fight for environmental justice is people celebrating the beauty, joy, and value in their communities, which is why they fight so hard to protect and preserve their neighborhoods’ integrity. 

“An important part of what environmental justice movements do [is] saying we can live differently, we can live better, we don’t have to live like this,” said Sze.