Environmental racism refers to the enactment or enforcement of any policy, practice, or regulation that negatively affects the environment of low-income and/or racially homogeneous communities at a disparate rate than affluent communities.
- 1 Background
- 2 History
- 3 United States
- 4 International
- 5 Environmental hazards
- 6 See also
- 7 References
- 8 External links
Environmental racism stems from the Civil Rights Movement and was coined by African American civil rights activist Benjamin Chavis. Environmental racism can be either intentional or unintentional racial discrimination and can explain specific incidents in which predominantly minority communities are targeted for the siting of polluting industries and factories.
The terms also describes the effects of purported structural and institutionalized racism that segregate minority communities into regions where they are exposed to health hazards because of the cheaper land in polluted, industrial areas. Environmental racism theoretically also accounts for the exclusion of minority groups from decision-making or regulatory bodies in their communities.
The first report to draw a relationship between race, income, and risk of exposure to pollutants was the Council of Environmental Quality’s “Annual Report to the President” in 1971. Later, the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice explored the idea in its 1987 report, "Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States: A National Report on the Racial and Socioeconomic Characteristics of Communities with Hazardous Waste Sites". Following that report, advocacy groups formed and politicians enacted legislation to address the issue. This reaction is referred to as environmental justice.
Since the coining of the term "environmental racism," researchers have investigated why minorities are more likely than European Americans to reside in areas with degraded environmental conditions. Some social scientists suggest that the historical processes of suburbanization and decentralization are examples of white privilege that have contributed to contemporary patterns of environmental racism.
In the U.S., the wealth of a community is not nearly as good a predictor of hazardous waste locations as the ethnic background of the residents, suggesting that the selection of sites for hazardous waste disposal involves some form of racism. Such facilities are primarily located in areas where voter registration and education are low and citizens are presumed to be uninformed and less concerned with the presence of hazardous waste.
According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), the statistics suggest that the people of minority communities are less likely to challenge a corporation from opening or operating, therefore, less likely to seek financial compensation or fight costly legal and political battles, which makes such locations attractive to polluters. The greater the potential for collective action in an area, the higher the expected costs of litigation, lobbying, and compensation a firm will face and the less likely it will choose to expand in a given area. Some studies suggest that the lack of protest could be due to fear of losing area jobs, thereby jeopardizing economic survival.
Since European Americans are more likely to be homeowners, they have more power and influence in their communities and can successfully advocate against unwanted land uses such as hazardous waste sites, sewage treatment facilities, incinerators, and freeway construction. The higher incidence of home ownership is related to patterns of employment and housing discrimination in the United States.
While social scientists see the intentional siting of unwanted land uses in minority communities as one demonstration of environmental racism, other social scientists look into the structural and institutionalized bases for the disproportionate exposure of minorities to polluted environments. These social scientists suggest that the historical processes of suburbanization, gentrification, and decentralization are examples of white privilege that have contributed to contemporary patterns of environmental racism. The term "white privilege" refers to the perception of the current social system as one that works for the benefit of European Americans.
With suburbanization, a federally encouraged phenomenon, European Americans were able to flee industrial zones and follow the jobs as they shifted from manufacturing centers to safe, clean, inexpensive suburban locales. Minority communities were largely left in the inner cities, segregated along racial lines and in close proximity to polluted industrial zones. In these areas, unemployment is high and businesses are less likely to invest in area improvement, creating poor economic conditions for residents and reinforcing a social formation that reproduces racial inequality.
Some social scientists ask whether locally unwanted land use (LULUs) are intentionally placed in minority communities, or whether communities with LULUs gradually become populated by minorities, as European Americans relocate to comparably better areas. Most respond that it is a combination of both, and that both are related to the idea of environmental racism. Shifts in population that account for the over-representation of minorities in the inner cities are less detectable forms of institutionalized racism.
Studies and Reports
The recognition of environmental racism and how it hinders self-improvement in disadvantaged minority communities came in 1971 in the “Annual Report to the President” from the Council of Environmental Quality. This was a landmark finding, but environmental justice did not become a national issue until the case of Bean vs. Southwestern Waste Management in 1982. In this lawsuit, Warren County, North Carolina -- a predominantly African American county—was selected as a disposal site for large amounts of toxic soil. Protests and resistance to this decision brought national attention to the idea of environmental racism and prompted a congressional investigation into claims that minority communities were targeted for sites of pollution. The investigation, conducted by the US General Accounting Office, found that of the waste sites in the southeastern US, three-fourths were located in predominantly African American communities.
In 1987, the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice (CRJ) furthered the discussion of environmental racism with their 1987 report, "Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States: A National Report on the Racial and Socioeconomic Characteristics of Communities with Hazardous Waste Sites". The report drew a correlation between the predominance of minorities and the presence of these waste facilities. Although some question the unbiased nature and methodology of this report, the commission found that when analyzing the factors of race, household income, home value, and "the estimated amount of hazardous waste generated by industry," the most significant factor in determining the location of commercial hazardous waste facilities in the US was race.
After publishing its first report entitled "Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States" in 1987, the CRJ conducted a follow-up study that was published in 2007. The 1987 report focused on the environmental hazards that minority communities face as a result of the placement of landfills, toxic waste sites, etc. near their communities. This report found that when analyzing the factors of race, household income, home value, and "the estimated amount of hazardous waste generated by industry," the most significant factor in determining the location of commercial hazardous waste facilities in the US was race. The 2007 report, called "Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty," concluded that many of these same poor minority communities continued to face the same problems as 20 years ago. In 2007, these communities even faced new problems "because of government cutbacks in enforcement, weakening health protection, and dismantling the environmental justice regulatory apparatus."
Some of the 2007 Report Findings:
- National Disparities - Host neighborhoods of commercial hazardous waste facilities are made up of 56% people of color (including African Americans, Hispanics/Latinos, and Asians/Pacific Islanders). However, non-host neighborhoods are only made up of 30% people of color.
- Neighborhoods with Clustered Facilities - Neighborhoods with hazardous waste facilities clustered close together have populations with 69% people of color, while neighborhoods without clustered facilities have populations with 51% people of color.
- State Disparities - This problem of environmental racism is not only found in a few states. Rather, out of the 44 states that have hazardous waste facilities, 40 of these states have disproportionately high percentages of people of color living within 3 kilometers of the facilities. The top-ten ranking states with disparities between the percentages of people of color living in host neighborhoods and those living in non-host neighborhoods are Michigan, Nevada, Kentucky, Illinois, Alabama, Tennessee, Washington, Kansas, Arkansas, and California.
In 1970, in response to rising concerns about environmental pollution, the United States government established the Environmental Protection Agency. According to the EPA, whose mission is to "protect human health and the natural environment," environmental justice is "the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws." In its policy, the EPA alludes to the difficulties of assessing the impact of environmental hazards on low income and minority communities, and admits that those communities suffer a disproportionate share of the burden. There is also a general lack of data on the health effects of pollutants in those communities.
In 1992, U.S. president George H.W. Bush established the Office of Environmental Equity—a branch of the EPA—with the goal of achieving environmental justice in America. In 1992, this office produced a report “Environmental Equity: Reducing Risks for all Communities,” one of the first comprehensive government reports on environmental justice. This office was renamed the Office of Environmental Justice by subsequent U.S. president Bill Clinton.
On 11 February 1994, Clinton signed Executive Order 12898, which directed federal agencies to develop strategies to help them identify and address disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of their programs, policies, and activities on minority and low-income populations. Clinton also intended the Order to provide minority and low-income communities with access to public information and opportunities for public participation in matters relating to human health or the environment.
When it comes to approaching legal justice, groups may bring their claims up under the Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 Civil rights act of 1964#Title VI, which prohibits discrimination based on race or national origin in federally funded programs and activities.
Warren County, North Carolina
The environmental justice movement began in Warren County, North Carolina, after the state buried over 30,000 cubic yards of PCB-contaminated soil in an impoverished, predominantly black neighborhood.
Despite protests from residents, political leaders, civil rights and environmental activists, and scientific findings that the plan would likely cause drinking water contamination, the Warren County PCB Landfill was built and the toxic waste was placed in the landfill.
Altgeld Gardens is a housing community located in south Chicago that was built in 1945 on an abandoned landfill for returning African-American veterans of World War II. Surrounded by 53 toxic facilities and 90% of the city's landfills, the Altgeld Gardens area became known as a “toxic doughnut.” With 90% of its population African-American, and 65% below the poverty level, Altgeld Gardens is considered a classic example of environmental racism. The known toxicants and pollutants that affect the Altgeld Gardens area include: mercury, ammonia gas, lead, dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), heavy metals, and xylene.
Chester, Pennsylvania is a an example of the "social, political, and economic forces that shape the disproportionate distribution of environmental hazards in poor communities of color.” Chester is located in Delaware County, an area with a population of 500,000 that, excluding Chester, is 91% European American. Chester, however, is 65% African American, with the highest minority population and poverty rate in Delaware County, and recipient of a disproportionate amount of environmental risks and hazards.
Chester has five large waste facilities including trash incinerator, a medical waste incinerator, and a sewage treatment plant. These waste sites in Chester have a total permitted capacity of 2 million tons of waste per year while the rest of Delaware County has a capacity of merely 1,400 tons per year. One of the waste sites located in Chester is the Westinghouse incinerator, which burns all of the municipal waste from the entire county. These numerous waste facilities have posed negative health risks to the citizens of Chester, as the cancer rate in this area is 2.5 times higher than it is anywhere else in Pennsylvania. The clustering of all of these polluting facilities in Chester points to environmental racism.
New Orleans, Louisiana
New Orleans, Louisiana has been cited as an example of potential and past environmental racism. At the time of Hurricane Katrina, 60.5% of New Orleans residents were African American—nearly 50% higher than the rest of the United States—and hurricane evacuation plans relied heavily on the use of cars and personal vehicles. However, because minority populations are less likely to own cars, these people had no choice but to stay behind, while wealthier people—notably European Americans—were able to escape. A report commissioned by the U.S. House of Representatives found that political leaders failed to consider the fact that "100,000 city residents had no cars and relied on public transit," and the city's failure to complete its mandatory evacuation led to hundreds of deaths. According to James Elliott of Tulane University, African Americans were 1.5 times more likely to remain in the city of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina than European Americans. According to a study conducted by Elliott, both race and class played a role in the response of the government. The same study found that African Americans, as compared to their European American counterparts, were less likely to be evacuated before the storm, four times more likely to lose their jobs after the storm, reported more post disaster stress, and had less support systems to turn to in the aftermath of Katrina. The study concluded that race, as well as class, had an influence on the effects of Hurricane Katrina.
In the months following the disaster, political, religious, and civil rights groups, celebrities, and New Orleans residents spoke out against what they believed was racism on the part of the United States government. After the hurricane, in a meeting held between the Congressional Black Caucus, the National Urban League, the Black Leadership Forum, the National Council of Negro Women, and the NAACP, African American leaders criticized the response of the federal government and discussed the role of race in this response.
An investigation found that authorities did not notify the Holt family about trichloroethylene contamination until years after their white neighbors had been notified. Some of Holt-Orsted's neighbors were notified within 48 hours of the discovery, while officials continued to tell the Holt family that there was no problem. Nearly a decade later, the Holt family was finally informed that the water they had been drinking, showering in, and cooking with for 20 years was contaminated with cancer-causing agents.
Effects on Native American Nations
Native American tribes in the United States resemble minority populations in that they are largely segregated and impoverished. In 1995, 51% of the indigenous people of the North American continent lived below the poverty line. The major difference between Native American tribes and other minority communities is that these tribes have sovereignty, and therefore have the power to select their own form of government to govern their nations. This power includes control over their natural resources. Tribal sovereignty creates a governmental, political, and logistical dilemma when trying to negotiate environmental issues and protections. In 1984, The Environmental Protections Agency created a “Policy for the Administration of Environmental Programs on Indian Reservations.” This policy stated that the EPA was committed to work with tribal governments on a one-to-one basis about environmental issues.
The history of environmental racism as it affects Native Americans is rooted deep in the history of the United States itself, and especially its westward expansion, from the Indian Removal Act of 1830, to the Trail of Tears. By 1850, all tribes east of the Mississippi had been removed to western lands, which were effectively owned by the federal government. Lands suitable to the construction of railroads were sold to railroad companies, those suitable to mining were sold to mining interests, and those suitable to settlement were sold or donated to European settlers and developers. Thus, Native Americans were confined to “lands that were too dry, remote, or barren to attract the attention of settlers and corporations.”
During World War II, the rapid expansion of the military led to an increased demand on federal lands for training and weapons testing. Because the land chosen for these purposes was similar to Native American land in that it was considered unsuitable for any other use, military facilities were often located conterminous to reservations, leading to “a disproportionate number of the most dangerous military facilities are located near Native American lands.”
Native American lands have also been used for waste disposal by the United States and multinational corporations, but illegal dumping poses a greater threat. The International Tribunal of Indigenous People and Oppressed Nations, convened in 1992, was established to examine the history of criminal activity against indigenous groups in the United States. The Tribunal published a Significant Bill of Particulars outlining grievances indigenous peoples had with the U.S., including allegations that the United States “deliberately and systematically permitted, aided, and abetted, solicited and conspired to commit the dumping, transportation, and location of nuclear, toxic, medical, and otherwise hazardous waste materials on Native American territories in North America and has thus created a clear and present danger to the health, safety, and physical and mental well-being of Native American People”.
According to the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, one possible solution is the precautionary principle, which states that “where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.” Under this principle, the initiator of the potentially hazardous activity is charged with demonstrating the activity's safety. Environmental justice activists also emphasize the need for waste reduction in general, which would act to reduce overall burden.
Concentrations of ethnic or racial minorities may also foster solidarity, lending support in spite of challenges and providing the concentration of social capital necessary for grassroots activism. Citizens who are tired of being subjected to the dangers of pollution in their communities have been confronting the power structures through organized protest, legal actions, marches, civil disobedience, and other activities.
Environmental justice advocate Melissa Checker notes that in preserving strong community bonds, people may produce the "stuff of 'quiescent' politics, or the underpinnings of a sustained activist consciousness.” Other strategies in battling against large companies also include demonstrations, public hearings, lawsuits, the elections of supporters to state and local offices, meetings with company representatives, and other approaches to bring about public awareness and accountability. In general, political participation in black communities is correlated with the reduction of health risks and mortality.
Environmental racism also exists at an international scale. First world corporations often produce dangerous chemicals banned in the United States and export them to developing countries, or send waste materials to countries with relaxed environmental laws.
In one instance, the French aircraft carrier Clemenceau was prohibited from entering Alang, an Indian ship-breaking yard due to a lack of clear documentation about its toxic contents. French President Jacques Chirac ultimately ordered the carrier, which contained tons of hazardous materials including asbestos and PCBs, to return to France.
E-waste disposal sites, such as one in Giuyu, China, are also subject of controversy. In Giuyu, laborers with no protective clothing regularly burn plastics and circuit boards from old computers. They pour acid on electronic parts to extract silver and gold, and crush cathode ray tubes from computer monitors to remove other valuable metals, such as lead. Nearly 80 percent of children in the E-waste hub of Giuyu, China, suffer from lead poisoning, according to recent reports.
Another example of foreign environmental racism is in 1984 both the Union Carbide chemical plant in Bhopal, India, and the PEMEX liquid propane gas plant in Mexico City where minorities reside blew up, killing thousands and injuring roughly a million nearby residents. The images of the victims in India and Mexico spread knowledge of environmental racism around the globe. In the other hand, some countries have small "eco laws" and are more prone to accept dangerous industries.
The United States and Mexico
The establishment of the Bracero program by the United States during WWII was geared to fill vacant jobs left by those participating in the war. The ideal group of people to fill many of these jobs: Mexicans. Mexico at the time was going through many structural changes that were attempting to further integrate the country into the international markets. The negative effects of those changes, and the attraction of employment fostered by the United States, created an ideal formula for migration. So, the U.S. sought out cheap Mexican labor. When the program ended, hundreds of thousands of Mexicans were quickly deported to Mexican towns such as Cuidad Juarez, Chiuahua and other border cities.
The passing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994 signed in San Antonio, Texas by president George H.W. Bush, Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, and Mexican President Carlos Salinas allowed for loosened ‘trade’ mobility between countries. This would ultimately increase the number of maquiladoras to over 3600. Although Mexico is partly to blame for some of the negative effects of maquiladoras, The United States is the largest enterprise invested in this border region because of its cheap labor and lax protection of environmental laws. Hazards caused by U.S owned companies include pollution of water from toxic waste, air pollution, and stalling of economic prosperity. Assessing the amount of damage done to the area is difficult because much of the United States’ attention to issues such as environmental justice have mainly been addressed within its own country because there is more pressure on the home front to alleviate problems. Building factories elsewhere is simply better for business, by U.S. business standards.
Chevron/Texaco in Ecuador
Places like in Ecuador that have been subjected to the malpractices of foreign companies have been forced to endure things like health problems, loss of agriculture, and poverty because of companies such as Chevron/Texaco.
The U.S. government chooses to overlook the practices of U.S. based companies, but yet provides the policy building and interaction between countries that allow for such development to take place. In 1993, 30,000 Ecuadorians, which included Cofan, Siona, Huaorani, Quichua Indigenous People filed a lawsuit, against U.S. based Texaco for the extensive damages to the environment and well being of the people. After handing control of the oil fields to an Ecuadorian oil company, Texaco did not properly dispose of its waste, causing great damages to the ecosystem and crippling communities.
The argument of Chevron/Texaco is that the manner in which they supposedly disposed of their waste, is no different from anywhere else in the world. According to their representatives, it was Ecuador that agreed to that type of business venture. The communities, however, offer much more proof of the amount of damaged caused by oil. Contamination of the water has caused many deaths, and strange diseases. “Out of 20 babies that are born, 15 to 16 have this same condition,” says Rosa Moreno who is a nurse in the Village of San Carlos in Ecuador. The condition is a rash that covers the body that is tied to the contamination of the water.
According to the United States EPA, the six most prominent examples of environmental hazards include
- Lead - There is a particularly high concentration of lead problems in low-income communities where the public housing units were built before 1970.
- Waste Sites - Low income and minority populations are more likely than other groups to live near landfills, incinerators, and hazardous waste treatment facilities.
- Air Pollution - 57% of all European Americans, 65% of African Americans, and 80% of Hispanic Americans live in communities that have failed to meet at least one of EPA's ambient air quality standards.
- Pesticides - Approximately 90 percent of the 2 million hired farm workers in the United States are people of color, including Chicano, Puerto Ricans, Caribbean blacks and African Americans. Through direct exposure to pesticides, farm workers and their families may face serious health risks.
- Wastewater (City Sewers) - Many inner cities still have sewer systems that divert overflow into local rivers and streams during storms.
- Wastewater - (Agricultural Runoff) - Widespread use of commercial fertilizers and concentrations of animal wastes can degradation streams and rivers in rural areas.
Chemical hazards include mercury exposure exposure to ammonia gas exposure to DDT PCBs, PAHs, heavy metals, and xylene. Exposure to any of these chemicals can cause sickness, birth defects, chronic and acute diseases, and death.
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