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Identities, Conflict and Cohesion Programme Paper 8: Environment and Morality: Confronting Environmental Racism in the United States

29 Dec 2004

  • Author(s): Robert D. Bullard


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, enforcement of environmental regulations, industrial facility siting and the locations where people of colour live, work and play.

Environmental decision making mirrors 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 the 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 dominant strategy.

Environmental racism is evident also at the global level. Shipping hazardous wastes from rich to poor communities is not a solution to the growing global waste problem. Transboundary shipment 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 double standard. Unequal interests and power arrangements have allowed poisons of the rich to be offered as short-term remedies for the poor. This scenario plays out domestically (in the United States, where low-income and people of colour 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).

Environmental racism manifests itself in the substandard treatment of workers. Thousands of farm workers and their families are exposed to dangerous pesticides. They 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.

Robert D. Bullard is the Ware Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Director of the Environmental Justice Resource Centre (EJRC) at Clark Atlanta University, United States.

Order ICCPP 8 from UNRISD (US$ 12 for readers in industrialized countries and US$ 6 for readers in developing and transitional countries and for students).