Racism and Discrimination

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Editor: Kathleen A. Brosnan
Date: 2011
Encyclopedia of American Environmental History
Publisher: Facts On File
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 2
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Page 1098

Racism and Discrimination

Racism and discrimination have been contentious issues within the United States, including in the environmental movement. Much of the work done by environmentalists has focused on preserving ECOSYSTEMS, ensuring BIODIVERSITY, and reducing human impacts on the environment. The wider environmental movement in the United States was criticized, in the 1960s and 1970s, for not explicitly including issues of race and discrimination. In the last 30 years, many activist groups have focused on ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE, seeking to include the perspectives of poor people and people of color in analyses of environmental responsibility. Social movements seeking to counteract the effects of race and social class in the environmental sphere have focused simultaneously on the needs of local communities and the continuing effects of discrimination.

Race and social class have affected who has been exposed to environmental harms throughout history in the United States, although the issue of greater exposure has only become a subject of discussion in the last three decades. People who lived in majority-race and economically well-off communities were usually able to avoid environmental harms such as toxic waste facilities, either by living in places that did not have such exposures or by engaging in activism when such facilities tried to locate close to them. Poor people and people of color—including racial and ethnic groups such as African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans—have lacked political and economic power in the United States. They have been less able to avoid living near environmentally hazardous locales or to resist new facilities that pose environmental hazards. As a result, poor people and people of color in the United States have been disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards and suffered greater negative health effects as compared with majority-race and well-off people.

In the United States, data on environmental exposures at the local level have been collected through federal legal requirements such as the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI). Since 1986, the TRI has allowed communities to have access to information about AIR POLLUTION, WATER POLLUTION, and soil pollution, including that caused by chemicals and emissions. Allegations of environmental injustice have tended to rely on analyses of data about pollution and various environmental hazards that are then connected to data about the economic and racial composition of communities that bear disproportionate exposures to them.

Movements for environmental justice have sought to counteract the effects of race and social class on exposure to environmental harms. Activists have debated whether the term environmental racism or environmental justice should be used. Benjamin Chavis (1948-), the former leader of the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF COLORED PEOPLE (NAACP), has often been credited with coining the term environmental racism when he was director of the United Church of Christ's Commission for Racial Justice during the 1980s. Environmental racism generally implies racist intent with regard to the way facilities were located and operated. Because intent has been difficult to prove, the term that has been most often used for movements that seek to address issues of race and class is environmental justice. However, those who believe that environmental racism captures the particular effects of race on exposure to environmental harms seek to maintain use of that term. The U.S. ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY defines 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.”

There are several key points within U.S. social movements seeking to counteract the effects of discrimination on the basis of race and social class. Throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, local community groups began to engage in activism related to environmental hazards and their health effects on community members. In 1982, residents of Warren County, North Carolina, a heavily African-American county, engaged in protests against the proposed siting of a toxic waste facility. Late that year, the U.S. General Accounting Office produced a study entitled Siting of Hazardous Waste Landfills and Their Correlation with Racial and Economic Status of Surrounding Communities. This study demonstrated that within the eight states of the Page 1099  |  Top of ArticleU.S. South, more than 75 percent of hazardous waste facilities were located in communities that were predominantly African American, despite the fact that at the time African Americans were approximately 20 percent of the region's population.

The United Church of Christ conducted five years of study, and its Commission for Racial Justice produced a landmark report in 1987, Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States: A National Report on the Racial and Socio-Economic Characteristics of Communities with Hazardous Waste Sites. This report received significant public attention and helped bring about a more coherent environmental movement that focused on race and social class, correlating the demographic composition of communities with their exposure to environmental harms. Much of the movement's early focus on the U.S. South was synthesized in Robert Bullard's landmark book Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality (1994).

In 1991, many local activists from around the nation came together in WASHINGTON, D.C., at the First National People of Color Leadership Summit. This summit produced a document entitled Principles of Environmental Justice, which stated, “Environmental justice demands the cessation of the production of all toxins, hazardous wastes, and radioactive materials, and that all past and current producers be held strictly accountable to the people for detoxification and the containment at the point of production,” and “Environmental justice demands the right to participate as equal partners at every level of decision-making including needs assessment, planning, implementation, enforcement and evaluation.” Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, protests and activism focused on environmental racism and justice occurred in communities such as DETROIT, MICHIGAN; HOUSTON, TEXAS; and NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA, in addition to a number of indigenous communities both on reservations and in western cities.

In 1994, President BILL CLINTON issued Executive Order 12989, entitled Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority and Populations and Low-Income Populations. This executive order also created an Interagency Working Group of 11 federal agencies with responsibility for environmental issues to address concerns related to environmental justice through standards setting, federal contracts, and grant making. During the 1990s, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency promulgated a number of rules and established the Office of Environmental Justice.

Since President Clinton's executive order, work on environmental justice has continued through the actions of federal, state, and local governments; churches; and activist groups. The environmental justice movement has done much to ensure that the environmental concerns of low-income and minority communities are taken into account. Businesses have had to respond to expectations that they treat such communities fairly and include them in decision-making processes. In short, racism and discrimination are no longer peripheral issues to the U.S. environmental movement but rather are front-and-center concerns.

Harry J. Van Buren III

Further Reading

Agyeman, Julian. Sustainable Communities and the Challenge of Environmental Justice. New York: New York University Press, 2005.

Allen, Barbara R. Uneasy Alchemy: Citizens and Experts in Louisiana's Chemical Corridor. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003.

McGurty, Eileen. Transforming Environmentalism: Warren County, PCBs, and the Origins of Environmental Justice. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2007.

Rhodes, Edwardo Lao. Environmental Justice in America: A New Paradigm. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003.

Shrader-Frechette, Kristin. Environmental Justice: Creating Equality, Reclaiming Democracy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX1981000632