What is Environmental Racism?

and how to spot it in your city

Racial prejudice is a belief that people are inferior merely because of their race. Environmental racism is inequitable distribution of environmental hazards based on race.

Environmental Science: A Global Concern by William and Mary Ann Cunningham

Above is the definition of environmental racism provided in one of my college textbooks. It was the first time I’d seen the term so clearly summarized.

In the next breath, Cunningham goes on to describe the example of higher rates of lead poisoning in children who live in inner-city neighborhoods. But not just any children:

at every income level, whether rich or poor, black children are two to three times more likely than whites to suffer from lead poisoning.

My first thought: how the f*ck is that possible?

First, let me start by admitting that I am privileged with a capital P. I was able to learn about this concept in a classroom and not through lived experience. However, the burden of advocating for equity has been on the shoulders of POC alone for too long, don’t ya think?

So, here’s how the f*ck that’s possible:

1. Lack of mobility

Upper-class whites can do what Cunningham describes as voting “with their feet” or what the cool kids call “white flight”. Essentially, if an area becomes polluted, noisy, or undesirable in some way, people with money can just pack up and leave. Easy as that.

2. Lack of political power

Minority voices are underrepresented in politics, there’s no question about it. Not only is this a problem on a national level, it becomes an issue on the local level too because guess who decides where the hazardous waste dump should go? That’s right, the small-town officials you probably forgot to look into before your last local election.

No judgment, local elections weren’t always on my radar either. But Gary, running on the platform of “protecting small business owners”, should also be asked if he’s willing to protect lower-income neighborhoods from polluting industries before he gets your vote. And if he says no, run against him.

3. Poverty

Two teaspoons of housing market discrimination, decrease tax benefits and add a dash of prejudice in the workplace and you have a surefire recipe for wealth inequality. Polluting industries settle in areas of poverty because the land is cheaper and the communities that live there likely don’t have the resources to resist or refuse the development.

Pushing the burden of pollution onto the less fortunate doesn’t stop at border lines either. Rich nations systematically ship their industrial refuse off to countries with emerging economies and fewer environmental controls. It’s called “toxic colonialism” in case you need another light-hearted term to pepper into conversation on your next date.

Ok, so now you know it, but can you see it?

Environmental racism can take many forms, lead poisoning is just one example. So next time you’re strolling through a neighborhood take note of the following:

  • Is there easy access to grocery stores? Do those stores have healthy options?
  • Is there greenspace? Maybe a park? Perhaps a few trees along the sidewalk?
  • How crowded is the infrastructure? Is there any space between homes or apartments for grass to grow?
  • Is there easy access to reliable healthcare? Are there pharmacies nearby?
  • What’s the noise level? Is it along a busy street or near construction?
  • Are there community centers? Places for children to safely play after school?
  • Does the air smell fresh and clean? Is there an odor?
  • How’s the water taste and is it flammable?

Potable water, breathable air, and easy access to nutritious foods are things many of us take for granted. As we continue to wake up to the injustices of the world, keep this often unnoticed form of oppression in mind.

In it’s most subtle form this can look like subjecting communities to loud, crowded, or otherwise stressful living conditions which can cause immeasurable damage to mental health.

In its more obvious form, it can prevent access to grocery stores or healthcare and poison the air and water, greatly shortening resident’s lifespans.

Final Thoughts

I certainly don’t have all the answers and addressing this issue will take effort on every level. But, I do know that people can’t fix a problem they don’t even know exists. So please continue having these hard conversations, share this information with others, and begin working on solutions within your city.

Whether you start a community garden or run for a local council seat, the only wrong way to act is to assume someone else will act for you.

Feel free to continue the conversation in the comments below and let me know what eco-terms you’d like to see explained next.

Your sustainable lifestyle coach,