The idea of environmental racism is controversial. Even in the age of climate change, many people still view the environment mostly as a set of forces of nature. To many people, racism often connotes purposeful decisions by a master hand, and many see existing segregation as a self-sorting or poverty problem.
Among the injustices faced by racial and ethnic minority communities, one aspect that is frequently overlooked is the effect of discrimination on the environment that the community is based in. Whether due to targeted prejudice or resulting from ingrained institutional bias, the effects are too often the same: minority residents end up living in more polluted areas with less access to green space than their majority peers.
The most well studied cause of these issues, which are collectively referred to as environmental racism, is the more frequent siting of environmentally hazardous industries in predominantly minority communities, according to The Lancet.
In the US, examples include the Uniontown, Alabama, which in March, 2018, lost a long running civil rights challenge against a nearby toxic landfill, and the towns of the so-called Cancer Alley in Louisiana, an 85-mile stretch along the Mississippi river containing more than 125 petrochemical-producing businesses.
In such instances, nearby residents complain of a slew of health problems that they attribute to the nearby sources of environmental contamination. However, environmental racism is not confined solely to the locations of polluting industries.
It can also be seen in the historical siting of many minority communities on less desirable tracts of land, such as flood plains or other areas vulnerable to extreme weather events. Nor is environmental racism limited to the treatment of minority groups within a nation, as many polluting industries have moved from high-income countries, where they are monitored closely, to lower-income ones with less stringent environmental oversight. The textile industry, for example, is notorious for polluting areas around manufacturing hot spots, particularly in developing places like India, Bangladesh, and China.
The issues around environmental racism show that environmental and social issues cannot be neatly separated from each other. Resources, legal and financial, need to be made available to those affected so they can be heard when they call this discrimination out for what it is.
If progress is going to be made, efforts will be needed to make the environmental movement more inclusive and to engage a much wider range of stakeholders. Taking a stand against environmental racism means denouncing risky ecological practices that may save a few bucks in the short term. No amount of money is worth hurting the health and safety of vulnerable people.