Environmental Racism Explained – Key Concepts and Examples

Since the Black Lives Matter movement, most people are aware that systemic racism is a thing.

Environmental racism, on the other hand, is a concept with comparatively little public awareness.

If you’ve never heard of the term ‘environmental racism’ before, or are just curious to learn more about it, this article has got you covered!

Related: Who Invented the ‘Carbon Footprint’? The Shocking Origins

Definition of ‘Environmental Racism’

There is no singular, commonly agreed upon definition of ‘environmental racism’.

The term is historically spoken of in relation to the U.S., but is also increasingly applied to the international context with intensifying globalization.

In general, it describes the disproportionate exposure of people of color (POC) and indigenous groups to environmental hazards and pollution. A growing body of research in the field shows that these populations are especially vulnerable to climate change and often suffer drastic health consequences as a result.

History of Environmental Racism

Environmental racism was first popularized as a concept in the 1980s, along with the environmental justice movement in the United States. The movement highlighted the problematic living conditions in low-income urban areas, which were primarily populated by ethnic minorities.

The social justice activist Benjamin Chavis coined the term ‘environmental racism’ in 1982, after protesting against the disposal of toxic waste near an African-American community in North Carolina (1). Chavis defined the concept as follows:

“Environmental racism is racial discrimination in environmental policy-making and
enforcement of regulations and laws, the deliberate targeting of communities of
color for toxic waste facilities, the official sanctioning of the presence of life threatening poisons and pollutants for communities of color, and the history of excluding
people of color from leadership of the environmental movement” (Chavis, 1994, p.

The environmental justice movement continued to quickly gain momentum in the ’80s, with multiple studies highlighting the environmental inequalities that POC in the U.S. had to face.

Environmental Racism in the U.S.

Historically and present-day, environmental injustices disproportionately impact people of color in the Unites States.

A study conducted in 1987 brought attention to the fact that 60% of Hispanic and Black American citizens lived in areas declared toxic waste sites (2). Along with increased exposure to air pollution, contaminated drinking water, and extreme temperatures, ethnic minorities in the U.S. still face similar issues today.

Nuclear waste, for example, is commonly stored on Native American reserves. These plots of land do not fall under the federal law. By dumping their toxic waste onto this sovereign land, companies can therefore avoid strict regulation. Not only does this practice endanger the wildlife of the reserves, it also poses a serious health risk to the local Native American communities.

Further, studies show that POC in the U.S. are, on average, exposed to higher levels of air pollution than white citizens (3).

International Environmental Racism

Listing all of the global instances of environmental racism would go beyond the scope of this article. Here are some of the more well-known cases:

  • European countries and the U.S. continue to dispose of their electronic waste in the Global South (this includes China, the world’s #1 importer of e-waste, Central Africa, and the Gulf of New Guinea, (4). In the case of China, water samples taken from rivers used as drinking-water sources by locals showed lead-levels 190 times higher than WHO safety standards recommend (5).
  • American nuclear testing in the atolls of the Marshall Islands (1946-1958) still pose a major health risk to local communities today. A study conducted in 2015 found that the former testing sites are almost 10x more radioactive than Chernobyl (6)!
  • Less developed countries of the Global South, such as Bangladesh and Kiribati, are among the first nations whose existence is seriously threatened by rising sea levels. They face this dire issue alone, with little support from the industrialized countries that are the biggest greenhouse-gas emitters.

Fighting Environmental Racism

Environmental Justice and Climate Justice groups are the counter-movements to environmental racism.

Supporting your local grassroots activist group or larger environmental justice organizations is an easy way to get involved yourself!

Here’s a list of impactful organizations that actually make a difference:

Besides combating climate change itself, tackling the issue of systemic racism is imperative to reducing environmental racism. Encouraging and enabling the political participation of ethnic minorities and POC is a critical.

Lastly, education about the link between climate change and racism is a crucial first step in the right direction. Only when there’s enough awareness for environmental racism in the public sphere can we hold policymakers accountable for their discriminating actions.

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(1) https://www.mobilizegreen.org/blog/2018/9/30/environmental-equity-vs-environmental-justice-whats-the-difference

(2) https://www.ucc.org/what-we-do/justice-local-church-ministries/justice/faithful-action-ministries/environmental-justice/a-movement-is-born-environmental-justice-and-the-ucc-united-church-of-christ/

(3) https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/sciadv.abf4491

(4) https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00020184.2020.1827947

(5) Grossman, Elizabeth (2006). High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health. Washington, D.C.: Island Press. p. 185. ISBN 978-1597261906

(6) https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidbressan/2019/07/25/after-60-years-u-s-testing-site-for-nuclear-weapons-still-10-times-more-radioactive-than-chernobyl/?sh=34b70d4f26be

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