What is Environmental Racism?

Understanding the History of the Environmental Movement

To understand environmental racism, we must look back at history and analyze the environmental movement in the United States that happened during the 1960s and 1970s. During this time, several members of the environmental movement were “dominated by the White middle class. It succeeded in building an impressive political base for environmental reform and regulatory relief” ( Am J Public Health 1995). Because of the lack of representation in the environmental movements, it often overlooked marginalized low-income communities that were near dumping grounds of a variety of environmental hazards.

The Birth of Environmental Justice

The environmental justice movement of the 1980’s and 1990’s looked into reports that race and class determined if your community was near toxic industries. One famous environmental activist who is called the Mother of the Environmental Justice movement was Hazel M. Johnson. She resided in Southside Chicago, where landfills and other sewage plants surrounded her home. Following her husband’s death from lung cancer and rising respiratory issues among her children, she looked into documenting cases across her community to understand the impact of the water and air quality in her environment.

Through her community-based participatory research, she realized the adverse health effects that were happening in her community and demanded the Chicago Housing Authority to be held accountable for the failure to managing the buildings and ignoring environmental health issues. Her success led her to run for her local advisory council in 1970, where she fought environmental injustices in communities. Through her efforts, she founded People for Community Recovery in 1982 and continued fighting environmental racism in Southside Chicago.

Environmental Racism Exists Today

Several grassroots organizations have demanded BIPOC to be represented in political decisions and practices during governmental processes. Regulators often ignore communities and push their demands to the side. According to Dr. Robert Bullard, “Zipcode is the most powerful predictor of health and all communities. And all zip codes are not created equal.” Environmental racism is happening everywhere, especially in the United States, where predominately the cases for environmental racism are in Black / Brown communities. To not acknowledge racism as “a potential contributor to disparities in health by race and ethnicity is to ignore well-established social history” ( Am J Public Health 1995). However, looking into the health effects of racism is not easy, especially since there are interconnecting relationships between “race, ethnicity, social class, segregation, discrimination, and patterns of disease are complex” ( Am J Public Health 1995).

In recent studies, the Environmental Protection Agency has found that BIPOC communities are more likely to live near toxic polluting sites even when there are regulations in place. As the climate crisis continues to worsen over the next few years, the environmental justice movement must work toward public policies that can be in government legislation to protect their communities. Practices like community-based research have shown the importance of highlighting the environmental hazards and adverse health effects for individuals.

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