The origins of environmental justice—and why it’s finally getting the attention it deserves

Decades of research show that Black and brown communities are on the front lines of environmental harms. Can those longstanding injustices be remedied?

Sociologist Robert Bullard has spent four decades making the case that environmental harms have disproportionately affected communities of color across the United States. So when one of President Joe Biden’s first moves after inauguration was to sign an executive order that pledged to “advance environmental justice” in his efforts to address the climate crisis, Bullard was ecstatic.

“Now, environmental and racial justice is the centerpiece, not a footnote,” says the professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University.

Over 40 years of research has outlined patterns of environmental injustice, where Black and brown communities bear the brunt of environmental degradation or pollution. Now, climate change is adding another dimension: Those communities also often experience the worst effects of climate-change fueled risks like hurricanes and wildfires.

Decades of environmental injustice, recorded

Research on environmental injustice began in the late 1970s, after residents of a Black middle-class neighborhood in Houston, Texas, found out that the state was going to permit the siting of a solid-waste facility in their community. One question loomed large in the residents’ minds: Why was it being placed here and not in the white neighborhoods nearby?

Bullard, a sociologist by training, got pulled in to collect and parse the data. He found that 14 of the city’s 17 industrial waste sites—accounting for over 80 percent of the city’s waste tonnage—were situated in Black neighborhoods, though only 25 percent of Houston’s population were Black.

The findings were the first to systematically show that environmentally harmful infrastructure was more likely to end up in places where minority populations lived. But from the start, Bullard and other researchers were certain that Houston was not the only place where this was happening.

Just a few years after Bullard’s Houston analysis, a group of residents and activists in Warren County, North Carolina, gained national attention when they resisted a proposed waste facility that planned to store 60,000 tons of PCB-contaminated soil. At the time, the county had the highest percentage of Black residents in the state. When the contaminated soil began to arrive at the site, more than 500 protestors showed up to oppose it, lying on the road to block the dump trucks.

They ultimately failed to stop the soil from being buried at the site. But news of their fight galvanized Black leaders, community members, and researchers across the country, prompting them to ask whether there was evidence that toxic waste disposal sites were more often placed in minority communities.

The following year, in 1983, a federal report confirmed what Bullard had shown in Houston: Black communities in the South were home to a disproportionately high percentage of waste sites. And in 1987, a study commissioned by Benjamin Chavis, a minister at the United Church of Christ who had been deeply involved in the Warren County protests, took that conclusion nationwide: In almost every place researchers looked, the best predictor of whether someone would live near a toxic waste site was race.

That was true even after controlling for geography and income. Income levels contribute to the disparities but are usually a compounding factor. The inequality in dangerous environmental exposure is worst for communities that are both poor and minority.

Birth of a movement

A movement started to emerge, says Dorceta Taylor, an environmental justice expert at Yale. In 1990, she was one of about 20 researchers and activists who gathered in Detroit to confer about the recent studies and the enraging implications.

“It was a bone-tingling moment,” says Taylor. So energized by the passion in the room, they stayed up till the wee hours of the morning, crying and laughing and talking about the work they could do to make their world more environmentally just.

“We knew we were doing something that was going to change things,” she says. “We knew it was going to grow.”

The next year, over a thousand people attended a conference in Washington, D.C. At that meeting, they finished drafting out their “Principles of Environmental Justice,” 17 precepts that that could guide the growing research, activist, and policy movements that are still used today by many environmental justice groups.

Environmental racism occurs for many reasons: intentional and unintentional discrimination in siting of things like waste dumps, but also unequal enforcement of environmental laws and the exclusion of Black and other minority groups from decision-making processes. To achieve true environmental justice, the principles said, all of those issues must be addressed.

Policymakers began to take notice. In 1992, the EPA officially defined “environmental justice” and established an office devoted to it. In 1994, President Bill Clinton issued an executive order calling on all government agencies to consider environmental justice in their decisions.

Rhetoric vs reality

The rhetoric, though, has not consistently translated into reality.

“As far as I know, there have been no policies that have produced measurable changes on the ground, and until we get to that point, environmental justice policy is nothing more than a window dressing,” says Paul Mohai, an environmental justice expert at the University of Michigan.

The more places researchers looked, the more examples of longstanding environmental inequity they found—everywhere across the country, and above and beyond the inequalities caused by income disparities.

For example, in Texas, primarily Hispanic communities are more likely to be exposed to natural gas “flaring” events at fracking sites than primarily white communities. Historic “redlining”— racist housing policies that led to and upheld neighborhood segregation and disinvestment—have been linked to many environmental hazards that still impact minority communities today: Premature births are more common, and babies are often born smaller, in redlined neighborhoods.

Black and minority communities are more often exposed to devastating toxins in water than white communities, a reality that is still playing out in Flint, Michigan and in other cities across the country. Black households with incomes between $50,000 and $60,000 experience overall pollution burdens equal to those felt by white households earning $10,000 or less.

Overall, Black residents absorb about 1.5 times the air pollution burden of the population at large. White communities get a “boost” and are exposed to 17 percent less pollution than they are responsible for producing through their consumption of goods and services.

Recently, environmental injustice has aggravated the pandemic, because people exposed to long-term air pollution are more vulnerable to lung-damaging diseases like COVID-19. The excess exposure in minority communities has contributed to their higher proportion of deaths, research has found.

Unequal climate impacts 

As climate change’s effects became more visible in the U.S., it has also become clear that those effects are disproportionally hitting minority communities, a form of what author Rob Nixon calls “slow violence” inflicted on communities of color.

Jacqui Patterson, the director of the NAACP’s environment and climate justice program, saw the disparity firsthand when she spent weeks volunteering after Hurricane Katrina, a storm that was likely made more damaging by climate change.

Most of the people in the temporary shelter where she worked as a sign language interpreter were Black, as she is. In New Orleans, 75 percent of residents in badly flooded areas were Black.

“I spent six weeks in that disaster recovery center hearing stories and seeing the patterns,” she says. “It was impossible not to see the disproportionate number of African American people who were there who were suffering.”

After the storm, the disparities widened. Research found that recovery aid flowed more readily to white, wealthy communities than to poor or minority ones, a divide that other researchers have found grows with the magnitude of the disasters. FEMA has recently acknowledged it.

Other climate risks also hit minorities harder—extreme heat, for example. Temperatures in formerly red-lined areas can be over 10 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than other neighborhoods in the same city, Tree cover and greenspaces are less common. And minority communities tend to have less access to air conditioning.

What’s the cause—and does it matter?

For a long time, the legal and political conversation around environmental injustice centered on intent. Did a company siting a waste facility or other pollution source, or a city or state permitting it, mean to put it in a poor minority neighborhood—an explicit racially motivated goal—or was the location simply the outcome of market forces, which put the bad stuff where land was cheapest?

Intent is difficult to prove.  In some rare cases, there was evidence that communities with little political power were implicitly targeted as places to site heavy industry or pollution sources. For example, in 1984, the California Waste Management Board was deciding where to put toxic waste incinerators. A report commissioned to find communities that might put up the least resistance suggested looking for low-income, rural, Catholic communities—which almost guaranteed the sites would be placed in Latino neighborhoods.

Sure enough, an incinerator site was proposed in a predominantly Latino town in California’s Central Valley. But the community turned out to be less passive than the report authors had expected; residents fought back and defeated the proposal.

Whatever the motivation for such siting decisions, the outcomes clearly tend to affect some racial and ethnic groups disproportionately.

“It’s not really necessary to have racial animus,” says Mohai. “Once discriminatory zoning happens, everything after looks like non-discriminatory, even though it is. It’s already been institutionalized into the system, even if people are not intentionally making the decisions.”

“Where I see the racism is not caring about making reckless decisions, or not caring, after damages have been made, to repair the problem.”

New hope

The Biden Administration has embraced environmental justice, at least in theory, promising to consider it in all decision-making and to direct 40 percent of environment- and climate-related federal investments to communities that have borne the brunt of past environmental harms.

Exactly which communities those are and how they’ll be prioritized is still being hammered out, says Julian Brave Noisecat, a climate policy expert at the nonprofit analytical group Data for Progress—and those details matter a lot. The patterns are sometimes less obvious at the census block level than if researchers look at the precise distance people live from a hazard like a power plant, for example. “We have a baseline problem there, which is that we don’t have a great federal dataset for lawmakers to tap into,” he says.

But Bullard is fizzy with hope for the new administration.

“The environmental justice framing is integral here, and we’ve never had that before,” he says. “What we have now is an opportunity for the reformulation and overhauling of the whole thing.”

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