Environmental Racism and Justice

Introduction by Series Curator Amy J. Schulz, Professor in the Department of Health Behavior and Health Education and University Diversity & Social Transformation Professor at the University of Michigan

Person holding child in nature
Photo by Winnie Bruce

“Environmental racism is racial discrimination in environmental policymaking. It is racial discrimination in the enforcement of regulations and law. It is racial discrimination in the deliberate targeting of communities of color for toxic waste disposal and the siting of polluting industries. It is racial discrimination in the official sanctioning of life-threatening presence of poisons and pollutants in communities of color. And it is racial discrimination in the history of excluding people of color from the mainstream environmental groups, decision making boards, commissions and regulatory bodies.”

Reverend Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr.

The economic, health, and social toll of environmental racism is profound. Disproportionate and systemic excess exposure of communities of color to multiple pollutants in the soil, water, and air is exceptionally well documented, as are the contributions of those pollutants to longstanding racial inequities in length and quality of life.

The environmental justice movement arose in response to environmental racism. It centers on disproportionately impacted communities who have long borne the brunt of racial discrimination in environmental policymaking and enforcement. Key tenets of the environmental justice movement include leadership from communities of color and a focus on action to address racism in regulatory and decision making processes. In addition to repairing the harms of historic racism as these are manifest in the citing of noxious land uses (e.g., hazardous waste facilities, railyards, concentrated animal feeding operations) in communities of color and disproportionate exposure to pollutants in the air, water and soil, movement leaders have worked to redefine environmentalism to reflect the places where people live, work, learn and worship. The environmental justice movement is at the forefront of efforts to prevent disproportionate harms associated with climate change, drawing attention to climate related impacts already being experienced globally by communities of color.

In this Spark series we learn from scholars writing from multiple positionalities: those living in environmental justice communities, scholars based in traditional academic settings working in partnership with environmental justice communities, scholars from environmental justice communities working within traditional academic settings, and those creating innovative local solutions while experiencing environmental collapse. The series encompasses work that employs multiple formats, takes an explicitly anti-racist approach to inform public discussion, and lifts up leadership from those historically marginalized from decision making processes.

Reflecting those multiple perspectives and insights, contributions explore a wide range of persistent and emergent movement opportunities and challenges.

Three contributions probe the opportunities and challenges in efforts to develop effective and equitable partnerships between residents of communities experiencing environmental racism and scholars based in academic institutions, applying community-based participatory research principles. The diverse writing team for No Sacrifice Zones In Research Either! shares strategies and lessons learned as they worked to develop an equitable, effective research and action partnership to address human and environmental impacts of waste transfer stations in Jamaica Queens, New York.

Toxic Communities of Color: Reparation and Rebirth is written by representatives from a community-academic partnership in West Port Arthur, Texas, a predominantly Black community that has experienced decades of pollutants from the petroleum industry. The authors examine the movement of local activists from an initial focus on reparations for the harms experienced from decades of pollution, toward a focus on building a thriving community that is effective in its efforts to drive informed and equitable environmental policies.

Continuing to probe challenges and opportunities of community and academic partnerships, Mobilizing Black Environmentalism and Data Justice uses a critical race lens to examine the development of smart technologies within Black communities to inform equitable decisions. Grounded in the community science that emerged during the Flint water crisis, this contribution probes the critical importance of community leadership in data science to challenge extractive data practices and avoid the use of data and technology for surveillance and policing.

The Intersectionality of Environmental Justice and Women of Color applies an intersectional lens to highlight the central, and often invisible, role of women of color in the environmental justice movement. With a particular focus on Black women in leadership roles in environmental justice movements in Alabama, this contribution probes the dynamic processes of racism and sexism that they confront.

Unearthing Lead: Solving the Mystery Behind Pollution Maps focuses on lead as a legacy pollutant in the soil of urban communities. An innovative partnership between community residents, historians and public health professionals based in a local academic institution highlights opportunities for such unconventional partnerships to aid in the identification of legacy pollutants and inform action to prevent contemporary lead poisoning.

Two contributions to this series focus on the destruction of sacred or historic sites as acts of environmental injustice. Sacred Lands from Sacrifice Zones focuses on the desecration of tribal land by mining operations, ongoing soil and water pollution from abandoned mines, and their devastating health and spiritual impacts. A central theme is the importance of leadership from environmental justice communities and the critical role of indigenous knowledge in disrupting white supremacist and settler colonial world views to effectively address contamination of tribal lands with toxic pollutants.

Continuing the theme of desecration of sacred land, The Cycle of Environmental and Social Injustice Impacts on Gullah/Geechee Heritage Sites centers the impacts of environmental and social injustice on Gullah Geechee Heritage Sites in Florida. The devaluation, dislocation, and desecration of such sites is highlighted as a form of environmental injustice through erasure of historic sites that mark critical moments of white on Black violence and loss for community members.

Finally, Once Upon a Time in a Collapsing World, There was Hope in Collapsed States offers a global perspective through its focus on communities already experiencing environmental collapse in Lebanon. Recognizing the confluence of political disenfranchisement and instability, environmental destruction and climate change in creating environmental collapse, this piece lifts up the critical contributions to be made through local innovation and creativity that emerge in the face of environmental collapse and ineffective state level response.

Each of these essays engages key questions regarding efforts to eradicate environmental racism, even as new threats to equity and environmental protections arise on multiple fronts. Taken together, they name key challenges and identify critical opportunities and pathways for continued efforts to build collaborative efforts while interrogating the systems that reproduce the inequities that they seek to address.

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