Race is central to environmental justice

February 4, 2020

By Evan Davis

Greta Thunberg’s message is imperative. We are in the midst of an unprecedented environmental crisis with diminishing means for reversing its effects. However, communities of color have been sounding this alarm for many years and only as its negative consequences increasingly affect white folks has the media paid attention. While Thunberg’s voice is undoubtedly necessary and noble, her rise to celebrity neglects a key component of environmental justice in the United States; that is, a history rooted in racism and the negligence of Black and Native communities. More people are discussing human-related climate change as a result of Thunberg’s advocacy, but largely absent from this discourse is concern for the disproportionate impact environmental contamination and disasters have on communities of color. While Thunberg’s message adds to the long struggle of environmental activists of color, we must recognize that this struggle is not peripheral, but rather essential to environmental policy reform.

A History of Environmental Justice

Long before Greta Thunberg captured headlines for her environmental advocacy, activists, scholars, and communities of color championed the environmental justice movement. In the early 1980s, Black activists organized nonviolent protests to bring attention to the siting of chemical landfills and toxic waste plants near predominantly African American neighborhoods. The environmental justice movement began to formalize in the 1990s with the establishment of the Indigenous Environmental Network, the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice, and the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit. These groups wrote a letter to the “Group of Ten”, the largest environmental organizations at the time, criticizing their failure to integrate people of color into popular environmental causes. This marked a substantive shift in environmental justice and its spread into mainstream environmental advocacy. While all movements must grow and change, in recent years, conceptions of environmental justice, particularly those associated with government entities, have increasingly deemphasized race as the principal aspect of environmental justice decision-making.

Disparate Burden for Communities of Color

Consequently, despite a concerted effort from Black, Native, Latinx, and Asian/Pacific Islander environmental justice advocates, communities of color continue to bear the outsized burden of pollution and environmental catastrophes today. In a 2019 study, researchers documented a “pollution inequity” in which fine particulate matter (PM2.5 ) air pollution is disproportionately caused by Non-Hispanic White consumption of goods and services, and predominantly inhaled by Black and Hispanic communities. In particular, this resulted in Blacks and Hispanics having 56% and 63%, respectively, more exposure to air pollution than they caused in the United States. Considering that this form of air pollution in the U.S. was estimated to be responsible for 102,000 premature deaths in 2015, Blacks and Hispanics are over-exposed to detrimental health outcomes due to pollution for which they are not liable. Some studies suggest that income or geography of residence is perhaps a more powerful predictor of health outcomes relating to pollution. However, social, geographic, and economic factors are intricately tied to racial outcomes, and ultimately, communities of color suffer the burden.

Furthermore, people of color continue to face disparate harm from environmental damage. Hurricane Katrina serves as a quintessential example of the U.S. government’s failure to prepare and respond to an environmental disaster ravaging a predominantly Black community. There are myriad other examples of racialized negligence. FEMA denied assistance to many Black and Latinx residents of Houston after Hurricane Harvey, leaving many residents still recovering and searching for housing a year after the disaster. A lesser known, but significant example of racialized environmental policymaking is a flood in 2011 in Missouri which resulted in the destruction of Pinhook, a 100-year old prosperous rural Black community. The Army Corps of Engineers decided to blow a levee to divert flooding from Illinois farmland without consulting community leaders and failing to give adequate notice of their decision.

Racialized Negligence

In spite of all this, the Trump Administration reintroduced a 31% budget cut to the Environmental Protection Agency and continues to weaken regulations on industrial pollution and emissions. This proposal has in the past included the elimination of the Environmental Justice program, the Environmental Protection Agency’s modest attempt at corrective action for years of environmental racism. This administration has also driven out longstanding advocates within the EPA. Given these immense threats to programs designed to alleviate a history of environmental racism, now, more than ever, we must listen to communities of color. To be clear, Greta Thunberg has raised this conversation to the limelight in recent months and shared this attention with other youth activists of color. My point is not to detract from the momentum of Thunberg’s advocacy, but rather to re-center racial equity as the primary focus of environmental policy action.

Evan Davis is a Master of Public Policy student at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. You can contact him at davi3739@umn.edu with any comments or questions.