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What Is Environmental Racism? 10 Facts About How It Works

Lingering sunlight and suggestions of swelter are lifting spirits across the United States. For many, the spring air marks a transition out of the seasonal depression that comes with winter. For others, however, rising temperatures mean it’s time to find a cooling center.

These centers, which are used by cities like New York to provide air-conditioning for residents who don’t have it at home, are the end result of a decades-long fight against “environmental racism,” a term which refers to environmental injustice that occurs both in practice and policy. Factors like rising temperatures and a pandemic affect how comfortably people can live in their communities, and more often than not discomforts fall disproportionately on communities of color.

Young people have advocated for an intersectional approach to the climate crisis that addresses the realities of environmental racism. Here’s what to know about the unexpected effects of discriminatory environmental policies.

1. Living amid industry can impact mental health.

While it is acknowledged that living near landfills or toxic dump sites can disrupt physical health, there is less research available on how this impacts mental health. However, a 2007 study from Social Science Research found “sociodemographic, perceived exposure, objective exposure, and food consumption variables are significant predictors of physical health and psychological well-being,” and that there was “a significant relationship between physical health and psychological well-being,” specifically in low-income, Black communities in close proximity to a hazardous waste site. 

2005 study published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior also found that perceived exposure can affect the mental well-being of communities of color. “Residential proximity to industrial activity is psychologically harmful because many individuals perceive industrial activity negatively, as a potential health threat or a sign of neighborhood disorder,” the authors wrote.

2. Areas with higher temperatures within cities are the same areas that were segregated decades ago.

Neighborhoods with higher temperatures are the same areas that were subject to the racist practice of redlining, in which banks and insurance companies systematically refused or limited loans, mortgages, or insurance to communities of color.

According to NPR, in a study of 108 urban areas nationwide, the formerly redlined neighborhoods in nearly every city studied were hotter than those not subjected to redlining. The temperature difference in some areas was nearly 13 degrees.

In fact, according to analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists, “counties with large African American populations are exposed to extreme temperatures 2-3 more days per year than those counties with smaller African American populations.” Those same counties are projected to experience about 20 more extreme-heat days per year by around 2050, according to the analysis.

“[Formerly segregated communities] tend to have less green space — fewer trees along the street, less access to parks,” Gerald Torres, a professor at Yale Law School and the Yale School of the Environment, tells Teen Vogue. “Urban areas tend to be hotter, in general, just because there’s more concrete that stores heat. But where they store heat and they don’t have the mediating environmental amenities, the places just get hot.” 

This phenomenon explains the “urban heat island effect,” meaning areas are much hotter with fewer places to cool down. In 2019, Los Angeles hired the city’s first forest officer in an effort to increase the amount of shade in underserved areas by planting more trees. L.A. mayor Eric Garcetti has described shade as “an equity issue.”

3. Environmental racism is a leading cause of death in communities of color.

There are many factors that threaten the well-being of minority communities, such as discriminatory policing and housing availability, but environmental discrimination is actually one of the main causes of mortality for these residents.

“Air pollution and extreme heat are killing inner-city residents at a higher rate than almost all other causes,” Scientific American reported. “And as average temperatures continue to rise — contributing to what scientists call the ‘urban heat island effect’ — death and illness from the effects of climate change are expected to rise further.” 

4. It is cheaper for a corporation to pollute communities of color than white communities.

Research has shown that if you have a corporation who has violated environmental laws, the corporation is going to be fined. The fines tend to be lower in communities of color, especially Black communities and poor communities,” Dorceta Taylor, professor at the Yale School of the Environment and author of Toxic Communities: Environmental Racism, Industrial Pollution, and Residential Mobility, tells Teen Vogue. “Corporations, they’re not idiots — they can see this difference.” 

Lower fines lead to more pollution, which often decreases the land value of existing homes near a factory or landfill. As a result, more industry moves into the area, creating a vicious cycle. Left with little opportunity for mobility and sparse political clout, the remaining residents are subjected to continually worsening living conditions.

“One factor that might be playing into this is whether or not the communities are able to organize and mobilize to push for the cleanup that they should be getting,” Taylor says, “or even know when these [cleanup] cases are going to court.” 

5. Many environmental conservation organizations have racist founders or namesakes.

Some of the best-known environmental conservation groups have racist histories. For example, John Muir, known as the “father” of the national parks system and founder of the nation’s oldest conservation organization, the Sierra Club, used offensive slurs and called Indigenous people he encountered on a walk “dirty.” John James Audubon, namesake of the famous bird conservation group, was a slaveholder. Henry Field Osborn, a founder of the Save the Redwoods League, supported eugenics.

6. A lack of government and organizational diversity perpetuates the problem.

In a similar vein, many argue that a lack of diversity at climate conservation organizations and in government sectors affects whether or not an entity will rightfully put communities of color at the forefront of the conversation about climate change. 

Larger environmental, nongovernmental organizations (ENGOs) typically receive the most funding. These same organizations, across the board, are predominantly white.

“Where you have people from marginalized communities [in leadership], they’re going to cause you to ask questions you might not have considered,” Torres says. “You can think of it as, essentially, improving information flows so that decisions are better.” 

7. Environmental racism doesn’t affect only low-income communities.

“Even if you are a middle-class, highly educated Black person in this country, you’re more likely to still be living beside or close to communities with hazardous waste sites than if you are white, working-class with low educational attainment,” Taylor says. “So, however we slice it, there is a ratio that is more correlated with exposure to toxics and hazards with race than with the class.” 

In the notable 1978 court case Bean vs. Southwestern Waste ManagementCorp., a Black neighborhood of homeowners in Houston sued a waste management company, arguing that a permit for a new facility violated their constitutional rights. A judge ruled in favor of the waste management company. According to sociologist Robert Bullard, who collected data for the lawsuit and has since been dubbed “the father of environmental justice,” of the plaintiffs in the case, 85% of the people owned their homes and were considered middle-class.

8. Minority communities often live in affected areas before hazardous facilities are built.

study by University of Southern California sociology professor Manuel Pastor reviewed data for minority populations and move-ins before and after the arrival of toxic storage and disposal facilities in Los Angeles County from 1970 to 1990. Areas scheduled to receive waste factories were mostly minority communities; after the facilities arrived, there were no significant increases in the minority population. 

2003 United States Commission on Civil Rights report also concluded: “It appears, therefore, that minorities attract toxic storage and disposal facilities, but these facilities do not attract minorities.”

According to Bullard, in Houston during the time of the Bean vs. Southwestern case, all the city-owned landfills and 75% of the city-owned incinerators were in Black neighborhoods, even though they made up only 25% of the population during that period of time.

“There is a deliberate attempt to move into people of color communities. So that path of least resistance tends to run through people of color communities — if you look in the South, you’ll find Black communities, Latinx communities, Native American communities that were there before,” says Taylor. “That big, polluting factory came just before the waste dump was put beside their neighborhood.”

9. Environmental racism can also be expensive for people of color.

Energy and utility bills are a more subtle indicator of the ways that environmental policies can impact people unequally based on race. A paper from the University of California, Berkeley’s Energy Institute at Haasfound that, when controlling for year, income, household size, and city of residence, Black renters paid $273 more per year for energy than white renters between 2010 and 2017.

Additionally, an American Public Radio report found that residents in Detroit and other cities near the Great Lakes with large Black populations pay a lot more for their water than those in a city like Phoenix, which pumps its water from 300 miles aways.

“[Communities of color] get higher bills because their houses are not as weather-tight and therefore use more energy to heat a similar space [as their white counterparts],” says Torres. “To reduce [energy] bills to marginalized communities, you would put in new weather stripping around the doors or double-glaze windows — things that are really low-tech. But [without these measures], the course of a year [can] generate enormous costs because of the loss of energy.” 

10. United States policies aren’t just a United States issue.

Discriminatory environmental policies within the U.S. extend far beyond the borders of our country. According to reporting from Mother Jones, in Ipoh, a city in Western Malaysia, only half of the waste found at a dump site appeared to have originated in the country. The other half came from a wide variety of other countries, including the U.S. Much of the overseas waste was comprised of items collected for “recycling.”

Other countries, such as Indonesia, Vietnam, India, Thailand, and Taiwan, are subjected to similar waste dumping. Without a coordinated effort to combat dumping in the Global South, marginalized communities overseas are disproportionately affected by the polluting practices of the United States and other countries.

Ivana Ramirez is a student at Yale University and a writer for the Yale Politic. She is an intern at the United Nations Foundation where she contributes to digital storytelling and data visualization. This story originally appeared in TeenVogue and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story, of which Real Leaders is a partner.

Author

  • This story is published as part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets, of which Real Leaders is a partner, to strengthen coverage of the climate story. The project is a joint initiative by The Nation and Columbia Journalism Review.

About The Author

Covering Climate Now

Covering Climate Now

This story is published as part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets, of which Real Leaders is a partner, to strengthen coverage of the climate story. The project is a joint initiative by The Nation and Columbia Journalism Review.
  • This story is published as part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets, of which Real Leaders is a partner, to strengthen coverage of the climate story. The project is a joint initiative by The Nation and Columbia Journalism Review.

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