Skip to content

Environmental Racism in America: An Overview of the Environmental Justice Movement and the Role of Race in Environmental Policies

June 24, 2015

The problem of racial profiling in America relates to more than just police brutality and the senseless acts of violence that have recently captured the national spotlight. Race also plays a determining role in environmental policies regarding land use, zoning and regulations. As a result, African American, Latino, Indigenous and low-income communities are more likely to live next to a coal-fired power plant, landfill, refinery, or other highly polluting facility. These communities bear a disproportionate burden of toxic contamination as a result of pollution in and around their neighborhoods. Moreover, these communities have historically had a diminished response capacity to fight back against such policies.

A report from the NAACP entitled “Coal Blooded: Putting Profits Before People,” found that among the nearly six million Americans living within three miles of a coal plant, 39% are people of color – a figure that is higher than the 36% proportion of people of color in the total US population. The report also found that 78% of all African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal fired power plant.

In an interview for Yale Environment 360, Jacqueline Patterson, the Environmental and Climate Justice Director for the NAACP commented on the disproportionate burden faced by communities of color:

“An African American child is three times more likely to go into the emergency room for an asthma attack than a white child, and twice as likely to die from asthma attacks as a white child. African Americans are more likely to die from lung disease, but less likely to smoke. When we did a road tour to visit the communities that were impacted by coal pollution, we found many anecdotal stories of people saying, yes, my husband, my father, my wife died of lung cancer and never smoked a day in her life. And these are people who are living within three miles of the coal-fired power plants we visited.”

According to Dr. Robert Bullard, a scholar and prominent environmental justice activist, in an interview for EarthFirst! Journal, “Race is still the potent factor for predicting where Locally Unwanted Land Uses (LULUs) go. A lot of people say its class, but race and class are intertwined. Because the society is so racist and because racism touches every institution – employment, housing, education, facility siting, land use decisions – you really can’t extract race out of decisions that are being made by persons who are in power when the power arrangements are unequal.”

The environmental justice movement seeks to give disenfranchised communities – often communities of color – a voice and empower them to organize and get involved in decision making processes. As defined by Dr. Bullard, “The environmental justice movement has basically redefined what environmentalism is all about. It basically says that the environment is everything: where we live, work, play, go to school, as well as the physical and natural world. And so we can’t separate the physical environment from the cultural environment. We have to talk about making sure that justice is integrated throughout all of the stuff that we do.”

It should be mentioned that while the environmental justice movement does have solid roots in empowering minorities, its work is not limited to communities of color. “All of the issues of environmental racism and environmental justice don’t just deal with people of color. We are just as much concerned with inequities in Appalachia, for example, where white people are basically dumped on because of lack of economic and political clout and lack of having a voice to say ‘no.’ That is environmental injustice.”

Lifelong environmental justice advocate Desmond D’Sa (South Africa, 2014) addresses a meeting of fisherman in Chatsworth, Durban, South Africa. (Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize)

Environmental racism and environmental injustice are not unique concepts to the United States either. 2012 Goldman Prize winner Desmond D’Sa drew connections between his own work to protect and empower marginalized communities in Durban, South Africa, to the plight of communities in Richmond, California, who live within a ring of five oil refineries, three chemical plants, eight Superfund sites, dozens of other toxic waste sites, highways, two rail yards, ports and marine terminals.

We reached out to D’Sa to get his view on the global environmental justice movement:

“Having spent the majority of my life in an area smothered by pollution, I often wondered what it’s like living on the other side. Although I was not born into the life that allows for such living, I have come to terms with the life that I’m given and try to make it a living space where others hope to live in someday.

Being exposed to the ruins and health impacts caused by surrounding industries in South Durban, I was compelled to think about the injustices facing the South Durban communities, which were and continue to be linked to race and class. Since the early 1970’s, the people living in the South Durban area have been labelled as people whose lives don’t matter hence their placement in the industrialized section of Durban.

Having cases such as those in the news about the situation in Richmond USA, one would hope the South African government will be inspired to not allow something of that caliber to happen in their homeland to their people.”

D’Sa closed with a quote from Nelson Mandela, “I have fought against black domination and I have fought against white domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve, but if needs be it is an ideal I am prepared to die.”

“These inspirational words from the late great Nelson Mandela are the words I live by when fighting for the upliftment of all people regardless of ethnicity,” D’Sa said.

[Top: Destiny Watford (United States, 2016) stands in her community of Curtis Bay, Maryland. Watford inspired residents of the Baltimore neighborhood to defeat plans to build the nation’s largest trash-burning incinerator less than a mile from her high school. (Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize)]

Learn the stories of Goldman Prize winners like Sharon Lavigne (2021), Destiny Watford (2016) Hilton Kelley (2011), and Margie Richard (2004), who have taken a stand for environmental justice in the United States.

Related Posts

Three Black Environmental Leaders You Should Know

February 20, 2024

We celebrate the contributions of Black leaders to the environmental movement in the United States and around the world. Join us in learning about some of their stories. Sharon Lavigne Environmental justice advocate Sharon Lavigne (United States, 2021) successfully stopped the construction of a $1.25 billion plastics manufacturing plant in St. James Parish, Louisiana. The…

Read more

Prize Winners Today: Kimberly Wasserman’s Fight for Environmental Justice in Chicago

February 28, 2023 – By Ellen Lomonico

A Voice for Environmental Justice Kimberly Wasserman is a born organizer. Strong, joyful, and constantly evolving, she radiates warmth and energy. Secure in her beliefs but open minded and friendly, Kim’s power comes from both within herself and from her community on the Southwest side of Chicago: Little Village. Last month, we sat down with…

Read more

World Oceans Day with Kristal Ambrose

June 8, 2022 – By Jacqueline Kehoe

For Kristal Ambrose, World Oceans Day is every day. A 2020 Goldman Prize winner, Kristal—nicknamed “Kristal Ocean”—rallied her community in the Bahamas to protect the seas, passing one of the most stringent plastic bans to date: the categorical ban of single-use plastics, which account for one-third of all plastic in our oceans. On the frontlines…

Read more