Environmental Racism: How Climate Change Disproportionally Affects People of Color

When we talk about environmental justice, organizations like Greenpeace or protests like #sHellNo might come to mind. But with these conversations, we also need to be talking about environmental racism, which is the placement of marginalized communities, especially communities of color, in proximity to environmentally hazardous places or effects. That has immense impacts on the health and everyday life of people in a variety of ways. In addition to health problems, there is a lack of racial diversity within environmental organizations, which means a lack of people that are most affected being left out of the fight and finding the right solutions.

With what has been happening in Flint, Michigan for the last several years, it’s so important to be having these conversations about race and environmental justice. Black Americans are significantly less likely than white Americans to be confident that their water is safe.  The EPA office that is tasked with investigating civil rights abuses has been severely lagging in that area for years and communities of color all around the US have found their discrimination and civil rights claims denied.

And while it’s a perfect example of environmental racism, it’s not just in Flint where environmental racism plays out –  in Los Angeles, people of color are more likely to live close to toxic release facilities and if Keystone XL were passed, it would have harmed the Houston community. Pipelines like DAPL and Line 3 have consistently been built or proposed to go through indigenous land. Latino USA has an episode on environmental racism in San Diego on the poorer Latinos living in the neighborhood of Barrio Logan. And residents from the Chicago southside have been fighting for environmental justice in the area for decades but it’s taken an increase of white residents in the area to really get any action done.

Being disproportionally affected by environmental issues and climate change has numerous affects on some of the most marginalized communities. Research shows that people of color live with more air pollution than white residents and poor air quality is linked to various health issues, including an increase in risk of dying from Covid-19. Additionally, low income and minority neighborhoods are less likely to have trees along their streets, which makes them significantly warmer than richer neighborhoods with trees. In fact, areas that are much hotter in cities are also the same areas that were segregated and redlined decades ago, meaning neighborhoods with a higher Black American population are more exposed to extreme temperatures.

Governmental and organizational fights against climate change also tend to leave out people of color in almost every aspect. In addition to just not having any sort of racial diversity on their staff or board, some environmental conservation groups have a racist founder, namesake, or history. John Muir is often considered the father of environmentalism, as he helped found the Sierra Club among many other things, but Muir made several derogatory and racist comments about both Black and Indigenous people during his life. Other conservationists, unfortunately, have racist pasts as well, like David Starr Jordan, a conservationist and advocate for eugenics. This is something that white environmentalists need to contend with.

All of this is very US centric but there are other things that should be considered as well – like how some of the e-waste from developed countries have been sent to and dumped in developing countries, causing a lot of environmental and health problems for the local population. And there’s also a growing international business of illegally exporting and smuggling waste from developed countries to poorer and developing nations – which only adds to infamous landfills like Nairobi’s Dandora Municipal Dump Site or Nigeria’s Lagos Dump.

When talking about environmental justice, we also need to be talking about racial justice and how environmental issues impact marginalized communities, especially communities of color. Environmental and racial justice are integral to one another and to fight for one is to fight for another. We, particularly white people, need to be listening to impacted communities and individuals when they talk about these things long before white (and/or rich) people come into the picture. The fight against climate change, pollution, and other environmental justice issues also needs to include people of color and solutions that will help those disproportionally affected by the problems.

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