The lead in Flint, Michigan’s water, the toxic petrochemical plants in Lousiana’s “Cancer Alley,” the raw sewage backing up into homes in Centreville, Illinois, and the oil and gas projects that overburden some U.S. tribal reservations all have at least one thing in common: They’re examples of environmental racism.
Environmental justice (EJ) advocates have fought these types of injustices for decades, but addressing the root causes has been a protracted and difficult road. Here’s why environmental racism is a systemic issue, how the problem is global in scope, and what we can begin to do in allyship with those who have long sought to dismantle it.
What exactly is environmental racism?
The phrase environmental racism was coined by civil rights leader Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. He defined it as the intentional siting of polluting and waste facilities in communities primarily populated by African Americans, Latines, Indigenous People, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, migrant farmworkers, and low-income workers.
Study after study has since shown that those communities are disproportionately exposed to fumes, toxic dust, ash, soot, and other pollutants from such hazardous facilities located in their midst. As a result, they face increased risks of health problems like cancer and respiratory issues.
Of course, low-income communities of color have long complained of being treated as dumping grounds for environmental polluters. However, it wasn’t until 1982—after a rural Black community in North Carolina was designated as a disposal site for soil laced with carcinogenic compounds—that those complaints garnered national attention.
The incident prompted civil rights leaders to converge on Afton, North Carolina, where they joined residents in marches and demonstrations. The waste site went in anyway, and it later leached compounds into the community’s drinking water, but a spotlight had been turned on the pattern. This is part of what helped launch the environmental justice movement, which was the response by civil rights leaders to combat environmental racism. In 1983, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus who was at the Afton protests went on to request a General Accounting Office (GAO) study that found 75 percent of hazardous waste sites in eight states were placed in low-income communities of color. The subsequent landmark report, Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States, coauthored by Chavis and Charles Lee for the United Church of Christ, revealed this pattern was even more widespread, and replicated across the entire country.
Eminent sociologist Robert Bullard, known as the “father of environmental justice,” identified additional examples and helped solidify the growing movement. He also expanded the definition of environmental racism as “any policy, practice, or directive that differentially affects or disadvantages (where intended or unintended) individuals, groups, or communities based on race.”
At the time, and in the years since, countless other environmental justice leaders—from Richard Moore to Hazel M. Johnson—also played a significant role in shedding light on environmental racism and its ongoing impacts.