In the fall of 1982, more than 500 people were arrested while protesting the creation of a landfill in Warren County, in the U.S. state of North Carolina.
Every day for six weeks, residents brought signs, chanted, and lay down on the road to prevent construction. The toxic landfill was filled with 60,000 tons of soil contaminated by polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a cancer-causing chemical. The state government had chosen to build the landfill in Warren County, whose residents were mostly Black and mostly poor.
The Washington Post described the protests as “the marriage of environmentalism with civil rights.” This led to the creation of the term environmental racism. Even though the landfill was ultimately built, the demonstrations in Warren County sparked awareness and activism against environmental racism and toward environmental justice.
Benjamin Chavis was one of the lead organizers of the Warren County protests and later served as executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He defined environmental racism in his report “Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States.” Chavis described it as “racial discrimination in environmental policy making, the enforcement of regulations and laws, the deliberate targeting of communities of color for toxic waste facilities, the official sanctioning of the life-threatening presence of poisons and pollutants in our communities, and the history of excluding people of color from leadership of the ecology movements.”
The Warren County protests and Chavis’s definition gave a name to how power imbalances and systemic racism intersect with the environment. Communities of color around the world are disproportionately burdened with climate change and environmental hazards. Those in harm’s way are subject to air pollution, radiation, lead poisoning, poor water quality, and a lack of sanitation. These phenomena can cause a variety of health problems, including cancers, asthma, high blood pressure, and low birth weights. Environmental racism is often systemic, reflecting regulations, policies, and decisions made by governments and large corporations.
Why Does Environmental Racism Happen?
Many examples of environmental justice across the world connect back to discriminatory segregation laws and policies. Examples include redlining in the United States and apartheid in South Africa. Even though these policies are no longer in place, their effects persist. Formerly redlined communities tend to have fewer trees and parks, making them hotter, because the concrete they contain stores heat from direct sunlight. According to a 2017 study by the Clean Air Task Force, African Americans are 75 percent more likely to live in communities that border a toxic plant and are exposed to 38 percent more polluted air than white Americans, on average. Similarly, neighborhoods that were previously redlined have temperatures up to 10.5 degrees Celsius (13 degrees Fahrenheit) higher than those that were not, according to a study done in 108 urban areas. Increased temperatures can lead to heat stroke and other health hazards. Temperature is just one environmental factor that affects communities of color more harshly.
Examples of Environmental Racism
Instances of environmental racism exist around the world, many stemming from chemicals and pollution in racially diverse neighborhoods.
“Cancer Alley” is a 137-kilometer (85-mile) stretch of land in the U.S. state of Louisiana. Historically, enslaved people of African descent were forced to work here. Now, it is the site of approximately 150 oil refineries, plastics plants, and chemical facilities. Its name comes from the highly toxic chemicals in the air, leading to local cancer rates 50 times the national average. According to data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the cancer risks in the African American districts of this area are 104 and 105 cases per million. Meanwhile, the rates in its predominantly white districts range from 60 to 75 cases per million.
In another example of environmental racism through pollution, in December, 1984, the city of Bhopal, India, experienced one of the world’s deadliest chemical disasters. Union Carbide, an American corporation, funded the construction of a pesticide plant in India rather than the U.S. because the chemical and safety laws were less restrictive and expensive there. The plant leaked 40 tons of highly toxic gas, exposing more than 600,000 people. An Amnesty International report, “Clouds of Injustice,” estimates 7,000 to 10,000 people died in the first three days. Another 15,000 have died in the years since. Another 100,000 continue to suffer untreatable diseases. Almost 40 years after the toxic leak, survivors still have not received compensation or adequate medical treatment. Toxic materials from the plant site have still not been cleaned up.
Environmental racism can also manifest in water quality and access, or a lack thereof. A key example is the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, United States, a majority-Black city where many residents are economically impoverished. In 2014, as a cost-saving measure, city officials changed the city’s water source to the Flint River. Up till then, the city used treated Detroit Water and Sewerage Department water sourced from Lake Huron and the Detroit River. Residents reported concerns about the taste, smell, and appearance of their new water. Government officials ignored these reports, until scientific studies revealed lead contamination in the water supply. Tens of thousands of Flint residents were exposed to dangerous levels of lead. Outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease, a bacterial lung infection, killed at least 12 people and caused sickness in many more. Children are particularly at risk from the long-term effects of lead poisoning, which can cause intellectual and physical disabilities, even death. In 2016, President Obama declared a state of emergency in Flint. Later that year, UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston said, “Decisions would never have been made in the high-handed and cavalier manner that occurred in Flint if the affected population group was well-off or overwhelmingly white.”
Across the world, Indigenous populations face environmental racism from corporations and governments taking advantage of the weaker land laws in their protected lands. For example, an estimated one million Indigenous people from more than 400 different communities reside in the Amazon Basin. Their livelihoods are under threat from governments and corporations seeking the resources in their lands. Nemonte Nenquimo, a member of the Waorani tribe, led her people in suing the Ecuadorian government in 2019. This step came after officials failed to consult the tribe before trying to sell huge plots of land in the Amazon rainforest to oil companies. “As indigenous people, we must unite in a single objective: that we demand that they respect us. The Amazon is our home and it is not for sale,” Nenquimo said in an interview with the UN.
Indigenous people in the United States face similar challenges. In North Dakota and South Dakota beginning in 2016, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe protested against the Dakota Access Pipeline. The pipeline transports crude oil from North Dakota to Illinois to support oil production without the need for transport trucks and trains. Tribe members opposed the construction because the pipeline was set to travel underneath the Missouri River, the primary drinking water source for the tribe. The tribe’s leaders argued that even the smallest spill could damage the tribe’s water supply and that the pipeline traverses a sacred burial ground. Despite years of protests, Energy Transfer Partners began operating the pipeline in 2017.
In response to environmental racism, many countries and organizations are raising awareness about environmental justice. The EPA describes environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” To achieve this goal, in 2021, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution proposed by Costa Rica, Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia, and Switzerland that recognizes that a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment is a human right.
Some environmental justice work is done by large governmental and international organizations. A lot also happens locally, performed by the people most affected by environmental racism. For example, WE ACT for Environmental Justice is an organization in Harlem, New York, a neighborhood with high asthma rates due to polluted air. The organization aims to give people of color and low-income residents the information and language to be able to participate directly in environment and health policymaking decisions. This way, they can fight against the environmental racism that has affected them directly. Mboni ya Vijana, or “the Eyes of the Youth,” is an organization in Kasulu, Tanzania, that works with rural communities and young people to access clean and safe water, better agriculture, environmental protections, and community development.
To get involved in the fight for environmental justice, find a local organization near you and work with community members most impacted by the issues of environmental racism.