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Back | Programme Area: Identities, Conflict and Cohesion

Environment and Morality: Confronting Environmental Racism in the United States



Environmental racism refers to any policy, practice or directive that differentially affects or disadvantages (whether intended or unintended) individuals, groups or communities based on race or colour. It combines with public policies and industry practices to provide benefits for corporations while shifting costs to people of colour. Government, legal, economic, political and military institutions reinforce environmental racism, and it influences local land use, enforce-ment of environmental regulations, industrial facility siting and the locations where people of colour live, work and play. The roots of environmental racism are deep and have been difficult to eliminate.

Environmental decision making often mirrors the power arrangements of the dominant society and its institutions. It disadvantages people of colour while providing advantages or privileges for corporations and individuals in the upper echelons of society. The question of who pays and who benefits from environmental and industrial policies is central to this analysis of environmental racism.

Environmental racism reinforces the stratification of people (by race, ethnicity, status and power), place (in central cities, suburbs, rural areas, unincorporated areas or Native American reservations) and work (in that office workers, for example, are afforded greater protections than farm workers). It institutionalizes unequal enforcement, trades human health for profit, places the burden of proof on the “victims” rather than the polluters, legitimizes human exposure to harmful chemicals, pesticides and hazardous substances, promotes “risky” technologies, exploits the vulnerability of economically and politically disenfranchised communities, subsidizes ecological destruction, creates an industry around risk assessment, delays cleanup actions and fails to develop pollution prevention and precaution processes as the overarching and dominant strategy.

Environmental decision making and local land-use planning operate at the intersection of science, economics, politics and special interests in a way that places communities of colour at risk. This is especially true in America’s Deep South, which, by default, has become a “sacrifice zone”, a sump for the rest of the nation’s toxic waste, and is tarnished with the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow and white resistance to equal justice.

The southern United States is characterized by “look-the-other-way” environmental policies and giveaway tax breaks. Lax enforcement of environmental regulations has left the region’s air, water and land the most industry-befouled in the United States. The Lower Mississippi River Industrial Corridor has over 125 companies that manufacture a range of products including fertilizers, gasoline, paints and plastics. Environmentalists and local residents have dubbed this corridor “Cancer Alley”, and tax breaks given to polluting industries have created few jobs at a high cost. This is particularly true in Louisiana. A 1998 Time magazine article reported that in the 1990s, Louisiana wiped off the books $3.1 billion in property taxes to polluting companies. The state’s top five polluters have received $111 million over the past decade.

There is a direct correlation between exploitation of land and exploitation of people. Native Americans have to contend with some of the worst pollution in the United States, and the places where they live are prime targets for landfills, incinerators, garbage dumps and risky mining operations. Pollution from industries is showing up in the Akwesasne mothers’ milk in New York. Native American reservations are under siege from “radioactive colonialism”.

The legacy of institutional racism has left many sovereign Indian nations without an economic infrastructure to address poverty, unemployment, inadequate education and health care, and a host of other social problems.

Environmental racism is also evident at the global level. Shipping hazardous wastes from rich to poor communities is not a solution to the growing global waste problem. Transboundary ship-ment of banned pesticides, hazardous wastes and toxic products, and export of “risky technologies” from the United States, where regulations and laws are more stringent, to nations with weaker infrastructure, regulations and laws, smacks of a double standard. Unequal interests and power arrangements have allowed poisons of the rich to be offered as short-term remedies for poverty of the poor. This scenario plays out domestically (in the United States, where low-income and people of colour communities are disproportionately impacted by waste facilities and “dirty” industries) and internationally (where hazardous wastes move from countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development/OECD to non-OECD states).

Endangered people of colour in the industrialized countries of the North have much in common with populations in developing countries that are also threatened by industrial polluters. For example, grassroots groups from Norco, Louisiana, to Ogoni, Nigeria, identified Shell Oil as a common threat. Environmental justice activists have mobilized in central city ghettos, barrios and villages from Atlanta to the Arctic Circle, Alaska to South Central Los Angeles, South Africa to rural Native American reservations and rainforests in Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador and Brazil. These groups have organized, educated and empowered themselves to challenge government and industrial polluters.

Environmental racism manifests itself in the substandard treatment of workers. Thousands of farm workers and their families are exposed to dangerous pesticides on the job and in the labour camps. These workers also have to endure substandard wages and work conditions. Environmental racism also extends to the exploitative work environment of garment district sweatshops, the microelectronic industry and extraction industries. A disproportionately large share of the workers who suffer under substandard occupational and safety conditions are immigrants, women and people of colour.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 1 Oct 2004
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    From: UNRISD