What is Environmental Racism?

So many of the world’s problems share the same root causes. Despite the fact that we all share this planet, we aren’t impacted by ecological destruction equally. That’s why it’s important to understand environmental racism, a form of systemic racism that causes communities of color to experience the consequences of ecological destruction more than white communities. 

The term environmental racism was coined in 1982 by Black civil rights leader Benjamin Chavis. He described it as “racial discrimination in environmental policy-making… the deliberate targeting of communities of colour for toxic waste facilities, the official sanctioning of the life-threatening presence of poisons and pollutants in our communities, and the history of excluding people of colour from leadership of the ecology movements.” 

We can see environmental racism in housing discrimination. Black residents in both the US and the UK are disproportionately exposed to the effects of pollution and climate change. One study in 2007 found that race was more important than socioeconomic status in predicting the location of commercial hazardous waste facilities in the U.S. A government report in the UK showed that Black British children are exposed to as much as 30% more air pollution than their white counterparts. This is a result of discriminatory laws and practices around housing present in both the US and the UK.

Discriminatory practices like redlining create differences in local climates that can play a large role in health outcomes. One study on US cities showed that land surface temperatures are roughly 36 degrees Fahrenheit warmer in neighborhoods that were redlined in the past due to a lack of green infrastructure. Extreme heat increases the risk of heat stress conditions such as heat stroke as well as respiratory and heart problems. 

Many initiatives to make neighborhoods greener result in profit minded development that can increase property values and exclude low income people from affordable housing in greener neighborhoods. This process, coined by Melissa Checker as environmental gentrification, results in high-income residents seeing the benefit of green initiatives at the expense of low income residents.

Environmental racism can be seen on a global scale through the disproportionate impact of climate change on different countries. A 2010 study found that 20 of the 36 highest greenhouse gas-emitting countries are considered the least vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, while 11 of the 17 countries with low or moderate greenhouse gas emissions are “acutely vulnerable to the negative impacts of climate change.”

Moreover, the history of colonization reveals that our world today is still shaped by the extractive approach of commercial colonialism, through which colonizers invaded foreign lands for commodities like crops, minerals, and slaves. Colonies were designed to maximize extraction and profit. Lands were zoned and mapped based on utility for the colonizers. We can see the effects of colonialism on the global economy in today’s coffee industry. Smallholder farmers produce 60% of the world’s coffee, but 44% of smallholder coffee farmers live in poverty, while 22% live in extreme poverty. Meanwhile, Starbucks annual revenue for 2021 was $29.061 billion dollars, a 23.57% increase from the year prior.

The current state of environmental racism reflects a long history of systemic oppression and colonial exploitation. But if we look at environmental justice from an intersectional perspective, we can address causes of global inequalities. You can combat environmental racism in many ways. Advocate for safe, affordable housing in your area. Consider how your purchases impact the environment in ways you might not see in your area. Incorporate both DEI and environmental sustainability into your CSR efforts, because they’re both necessary to create a brighter tomorrow.

By Bianca Gonzalez November 30, 2021