What is environmental racism?

By Sacdiyo Abdulahi

Environmental racism refers to the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on communities that are mainly populated with people of colour and people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Ethnic minority communities in countries such as the UK, USA and Canada are often found living near hazardous sites including landfills, toxic waste facilities, garbage dumps and other polluting environments..

This concept stems from the Environmental Justice Movement in America which came about in the 1980s. Isolated protests of citizens seeking social justice and environmental protection soon became national social and racial protests which sparked conversation across communities in the country. The movement was primarily started by people of colour in America and it aimed to address the inequity of environmental protection in their communities.

Prior to the movement, there were already some examples of minority communities opposing environmental threats throughout the country. Some examples of this are as such. In 1962, Latino farmers fought for protection against harmful pesticides in the farm fields of San Joaquin Valley, California. In 1967, African-American students from Houston protested against a city garbage dump which took the lives of two children. In 1968, West Harlem residents fought against the siting of a sewage treatment plant in their community but unfortunately did not succeed.

Leaders of the growing environmental justice movement began looking for allyship from the traditional environmental organisations who mostly fought to protect the wilderness, endangered species and clean air. These traditional and primarily white dominated organisations had hardly any involvement in the struggles of people of colour when it came to protecting their environment. In 1990, leaders of the environmental justice movement co-signed a largely publicised letter to 10 of the biggest environmental groups in the country, accusing them of racial bias in the hiring and make up of their board and the development of policy. The letter challenged these groups to address the environmental hazards and contamination in the communities and workplaces of people of colour and the poor. As a result of this letter, some mainstream organisations developed their first environmental justice initiatives, decided to take environmental justice to account when developing policies and hired people of colour into their staff.

Environmental racism is also a huge issue in the UK. In August 2009, a census established that ‘the average black or black-British African person in the UK is exposed to 27.25 micrograms per cubic metre of harmful pollutant PM10. This is over 28% higher than the average urban white person’. Additionally, a 2010 survey reported in The Guardian established that ‘predominantly white neighbourhoods have 11 times more green spaces like parks, gardens and playing fields compared to those where 40% of residents are black or of ethnic minority group’ and this figure is yet to improve. This evidence shows that there is a clear difference between the environmental hazards experienced by ethnic minorities in the UK relative to their white counterparts. More recently, a 2019 report, Natural England found BAME Britons are exposed to particulate matter pollution at rates 19-29% higher than white Britons.

The issue of environmental racism is now a greater threat to those who suffer from it. Poverty and environmental racism have hugely affected public health outcomes for a very long time. Poor air quality has been linked to multiple respiratory and cardiovascular conditions. This is significant as respiratory conditions hugely impact risk of death from COVID-19 which is very relevant today.

From this, we can see the way racial justice and climate justice are linked inextricably and how it ultimately affects our health. We must do more to speak out and tackle environmental injustice in our communities.

What to read and watch to learn more about this topic:

Ingrid R.G. Waldron

  • There’s Something in the Water: Environmental Racism in Indigenous & Black Communities

= this book has now been made into a brilliant documentary on Netflix and it shows the impact of environmental racism on First Nation and black communities in Nova Scotia, Canada.

Dina Gilio-Whitaker

  • As Long as Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice, from Colonization to Standing Rock

= book

Candy J. Cooper with Marc Aronson

  • Poisoned Water: How the Citizens of Flint, Michigan, Fought for Their Lives and Warned the Nation

= book

Gordon Walker and Karen Bickerstaff

  • Polluting the poor: an emerging environmental justice agenda for the UK?

= The paper discusses the rich history of environmental activism by Native Americans and African Americans that has taken place in the US, and the contrasting lack of an established environmental justice movement here in the UK. It’s freely available and a really good intro to the subject.

Anuradha Rao

  • One Earth: People of Colour Protecting Our Planet

= This book for pre-teen readers delivers 20 short biographies of activists around the world who are working to save everything from trees to dolphins to people. In the process, it hopes to inspire the next generation of activists — especially those who might not have seen themselves represented in the still all-too-white environmental movement.

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