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Environmental Racism

Environmental Racism

Environmental racismdefined as "any environmental policy, practice, or directive that differentially affects or disadvantages (whether intended or unintended) individuals, groups, or communities based on race or color" by Robert Kuehn in his article titled "A Taxonomy of Environmental Justice"became identified as a significant problem for blacks and other people of color during the last decades of the twentieth century. Most activists and many academics use the terms environmental racism and environmental injustice interchangeably. Some government agencies and industry groups are likely to employ the term environmental equity, a term coined by a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) working group, because they believe it lends itself most readily to scientific risk analysis and avoids the more charged and controversial terms racism and justice.

Focused protests in black neighborhoods against environmental pollution began during the late 1970s. The phrase environmental racism was first documented in 1982 when African-American protesters, led by Rev. Walter Fauntroy (b. 1933) and Rev. Benjamin Chavis (b. 1948), captured national media attention by launching mass demonstrations against the proposed construction of a landfill for highly toxic PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) in the very poor, and predominantly black, Warren County, North Carolina. Fauntroy, the District of Columbia delegate to Congress in 1982, commissioned a U.S. General Accounting Office study, which found that three of the four commercial hazardous waste facilities in EPA Region 4 (which includes North Carolina) were in African-American areas, while the fourth was in a low-income area.

Meanwhile, the issue of environmental racism was receiving the attention of scholars, including Robert Bullard, a pioneer in the environmental justice movement. Bullard's 1983 research found that twenty-one of Houston's twenty-five solid-waste facilities were located in predominantly African-American neighborhoods, even though African Americans made up only twenty-eight percent of the city's population in 1980. In 1987 the Commission for Racial Justice of the United Church of Christ published an influential national study that documented a close and significant relationship between race and the location of commercial hazardous waste facilities and uncontrolled toxic waste sites. This report, titled, "Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States," concluded that race was consistently the most significant variable in the location of these sites.

Many black communities throughout the United States struggled in the 1980s and 1990s against the placement of toxic waste plants and other polluting facilities close to their neighborhoods. Such struggles occurred in South Central Los Angeles; Alsen, Louisiana; Richmond, California; Halifax, Virginia; and Chester, Pennsylvania. In Africa, the Ogoni people battled to stop the environmental injustice inherent in Shell Oil's exploration activities in Nigeria.

Perhaps, the movement against environmental racism has gained the most prominence within the United States due to the work of certain key leaders of the environmental justice movement. Armed with studies documenting the disproportionate impact of pollution on low-income communities of color, these black community leaders and academics pressured President Bill Clinton to sign in early 1994 the Executive Order on Environmental Justice, which requires all federal agencies to "make achieving environmental justice part of its mission by addressing, as appropriate, disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies, and activities on minority populations and low-income populations." Since 1994, however, environmental justice activists have been bitterly disappointed with the performance of the federal government with respect to both the letter and intent of the Executive Order. Furthermore, while several state governments have acknowledged the problem of environmental injustice and launched initiatives to combat it, most activists have been disappointed with the results. Similarly, legal challenges to environmental decision-making in federal government agencies based on racial discrimination or environmental injustice have been unsuccessful. Therefore, most activists and students of the struggle against environmental racism in the early twenty-first century would likely argue that mobilizing residents to be more powerful participants in environmental decision-making forums is the most effective strategy for combating this problem.


Bullard, Robert D., ed. Confronting Environmental Racism: Voices from the Grassroots. Boston, Mass.: South End Press, 1993.

Cole, Luke W. and Sheila R. Foster. From the Ground Up: Environmental Racism and the Rise of the Environmental Justice Movement. New York: New York University Press, 2001.

Kuehn, Robert. "A Taxonomy of Environmental Justice." In Environmental Justice: Law, Policy, and Regulation, edited by Clifford Rechtschaffen and Eileen Gauna, vol. 6. Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 2002.

james sterling hoyte (2005)

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