Environmental Racism: What is it? And why does it matter?

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Environmental racism. You might have heard the term in a documentary, through social media, or on the news. Perhaps you are an active member of an environmental justice organization, or you might know very little about the subject. Environmental racism has been a trending topic since the early 50’s and today communities are still fighting for justice. So, what exactly is environmental racism? Dr. Robert Bullard, Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy at Texas Southern University, simply describes it as when “communities consisting primarily of people of color continue to bear a disproportionate burden of this nation’s air, water and waste problems” (The Threat of Environmental Racism).

Historically, environmental racism has been deeply entrenched in our systems and policies through zoning regulations, urban planning, and the placement of landfills and hazardous waste plants. In the early 1900’s, New York City planners began to divide the city into two areas, residential and industrial. The industrial regions included a large population of people of color while the residential areas were predominantly white. Fast forward to today, zoning areas emulate those of the early 20th century. Freeways, waste plants, landfills, pipelines, pollution and limited access to natural resources are often present in areas where people of color reside. A coincidence?

Clean vs. dirty water | Source: Good Stock Photos

Around 57 percent of Flint, Michigan’s population is Black with about 40 percent living in poverty. In an effort to save money with their water fund, the state of Michigan built a pipeline near Lake Huron in 2012 which provided a new water source. This new water was not only discolored and odorous, but it had a significant amount of lead. Because the water was not properly treated, the Black community was deeply impacted by the contamination resulting in health effects from lead exposure. After numerous protests, it wasn’t until 2017 when a federal judge approved the settlement to replace the waterlines by 2020. The Flint water crisis remains unresolved and is only one of many cases of environmental racism.

Utah is not exempt from environmentally unjust practices. Earlier this week, The New York Times released a story on San Juan County, Utah regarding their zoning and voting laws. San Juan district boundaries have limited the Navajo community, representing 50 percent of the county’s population, from accessing political seats and the right to vote. The northern district, where the majority of white residents live, have ample amount of resources; the southern district, which overlaps the Navajo reservation, has no hospitals, banks, internet and limited access to running water.

The federal judge ruled that the county district lines were violating the US constitution which ultimately lead to Navajo representation on the county commission. But not without trepidation, the county officials claimed that the new voting district lines discriminate against white voters although there is no evidence for this.

Haze over Salt Lake City | Source: Wikimedia Commons

In Salt Lake City, there is a visceral divide between our east and west side communities just by infrastructure alone. On the east side, a predominantly white population, you will find newly constructed schools, adequately preserved buildings, organic grocery stores, and clean parks. As you move west behind the freeway and near refineries, west side communities, predominantly communities of color, are challenged with access to fresh food and produce, noise pollution, and poor air quality. “I look outside my window, and all I see is a layer of filth, not sitting above me, but filling the street directly in front of me,” says a local west side resident. “It’s suffocating.”

In fact, the Utah Society for Environmental Education ran a study where local west side residents identified problematic issues in their community, and the most commonly noted problem was air quality. In response to policymakers monitoring inversion and air quality, Utah House of Representative, Angela Romero, told local news, “How can we ensure that children on the west side aren’t playing outside on a red day because an air monitor on the east side says it’s a green day?”

According to a study published in The Lancet, pollution is the highest cause of disease and death in the world contributing to 9 million deaths in 2015 alone. The study also found that health effects caused by pollution are severe among low income and underrepresented communities. If communities, activists, policymakers, and allies are not fighting against environmental racism at its core, these injustices will continue to negatively impact communities of color.

Bullard says it best: “You can call it institutionalized racism or institutionalized inequality, but what I say is that any system that operates to maintain inequality is a corrupt system and must be addressed.”

To learn more about environmental racism, participate in our weeklong MLK event where you will hear more from Bullard and other experts across the nation.