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Environmental Justice in the United States – What’s Missing?

21 Mar 2018

Environmental Justice in the United States – What’s Missing?
Long-standing configurations of power and privilege result in the poorest and most vulnerable people facing the greatest risks from climate change. Ethnic and racial minorities are overrepresented among these populations, and are disproportionately impacted by pollution and extreme weather events, both globally and within individual countries. But does environmental injustice affect poor communities because they are non-white, or does it affect non-white communities because they are poor? Focusing on examples from the United States, this Think Piece explores this interconnection and how it relates to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Environmental justice is a social movement which emphasizes the need to protect all people from environmental harms. It aims to address and overcome environmental disparities, and has been taken up by policy makers in different contexts, such as the US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) 1994 Environmental Justice Executive Order. The EPA defines environmental justice as “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 protective environmental laws, regulations, and policies”, further stating that “no group of people, including racial, ethnic or socioeconomic groups should bear a disproportionate share of the negative environmental consequences resulting from … operations or … programs and policies”.

While the breadth and inclusivity of the concept of environmental justice have been conducive to its uptake and the formation of broad coalitions, they have sometimes also had the unintended effect of masking more specific causes of injustice. In the American context, we see this manifested in environmental racism, which may be obscured within the larger debates on environmental justice. Consequently, this think piece focuses primarily on the lens of race.

Non-white people in the United States—Black, Latinx, Asian and Pacific Islander, Native, biracial and multiracial Americans, also often referred to as people of colour—are disproportionately impacted by environmental injustice, meaning they are more exposed and susceptible to the negative effects of pollution, extreme weather events and large-scale agricultural practices.

According to Laura Pulido, the concept of white privilege can help advance understanding of racially disparate environmental outcomes as it explicitly goes beyond the narrow framing of racism as intentional acts of discrimination, acknowledging and expanding on its systemic nature. In her later work, she finds that while the concept continues to be a useful framework for analysis and policy making, its widespread uptake has taken attention away from processes of appropriation and completely sidelined the question of who is responsible for racial domination. She argues that it is crucial to analyse the multiple forms of environmental racism that (re)produce inequalities and shape both lives and places to identify and overcome racist dynamics and redress human rights violations by confronting those who commit them.

Expanding on this conceptualization of white privilege, critical race theory provides a framework from which the concept of environmental racism, specifically, can be understood. David Gillborn explains critical race theory as a socially constructed phenomenon in which

‘racial difference’ is invented, perpetuated and reinforced by society. In this approach, racism is understood to be complex, subtle and flexible; it manifests differently in different contexts, and minoritized groups are subject to a range of different (and changing) stereotypes. Critical race theorists argue that the majority of racism remains hidden beneath a veneer of normality and it is only the more crude and obvious forms of racism that are seen as problematic by most people.

An intersectional lens to critical race theory takes into account that other factors such as sexual orientation, geography, gender identity, income/class, ability and education level compound the degree to which individuals feel the effects of environmental racism.

Environmental Racism: What is it, and why is it important?

Environmental racism can be described as the processes and structures which lead to disproportionately felt negative environmental consequences on the basis of race. In Environment and Morality: Confronting Environmental Racism in the United States, an UNRISD Programme Paper, Robert Bullard (2004) defines it as “any environmental policy, practice or directive that differentially affects or disadvantages (whether intended or unintended) individuals, groups or communities based on race or colour”.

Despite numerous empirical studies that have highlighted instances of environmental racism, there has been relatively little uptake of the term and theory, both in scholarly and activist discourses. Instead, people are more likely to refer to the (less controversial and) broader-reaching concept of environmental justice, which includes groups who are deprived of their environmental rights—such as women, children and poor people—regardless of race or ethnicity. The broader uptake of “injustice” rather than “racism” as an analytical framework may be due to the widespread refusal to concede the label of racism for institutional or indirect forms of racial discrimination.

The vast majority of research on environmental racism and injustice fails to consider theories of race and racism that are well established in the social sciences. While many studies point to racial inequalities in the patterns of distribution of environmental hazards, inadequate attention is paid to the complex ways in which structural racism is linked to class and capitalist accumulation strategies, which produce sharp inequalities and discriminatory spatial practices that burden low-income communities of colour.

A more explicit research and policy focus on systemic race-based discrimination will amplify the power of the environmental justice movement and civil society organizations, which, despite many advances, have not yet succeeded in improving the environments of vulnerable communities.

Coping with storms and toxic waste: racial disparities and environmental hazards

Race and ethnicity have been repeatedly identified as significant contributing factors to social vulnerability in research on natural hazards in the United States. Nevertheless, the issue of structural racism that leads to higher vulnerability and mortality among people of colour when disaster strikes (for example, in the cases of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and more recently in 2017, Hurricanes Irma, Harvey and Maria) is inadequately discussed (although it has received greater attention since Katrina); as is the issue of racialized responses to environmental crises. Instead, the focus is put on more general issues of social stratification and inequalities, such as class or income, access to health care, and so on—factors that largely intersect with race and ethnicity and compound vulnerability for people of colour. But what if racism puts people of colour at greater risk in the first place?

Many early studies on environmental justice focused on differential exposure to pollution. Assessments of where hazardous waste facilities are sited and where toxic pollution occurs have demonstrated that environmental risks disproportionately burden communities of colour. In many studies, it has proved difficult to disentangle the specific factors that result in people and communities of colour’s higher exposure to environmental hazards and pollution, as these communities are often also poor.

Although there are many factors that influence the siting of waste facilities, early environmental justice studies identify race as a stronger predictor of the siting of waste facilities in the United States than poverty, land values or home ownership. A more recent, longitudinal analysis (1966-1995) of the siting of commercial hazardous waste facilities in the country confirmed race to be a significant predictor of such siting even when controlling for mean property values and socioeconomic characteristics. Toxic waste directly impacts people’s enjoyment of numerous rights, including the rights to life, social protection, health, physical and mental integrity, and water and sanitation.

What’s missing: tackling racism, patriarchy and classism

While race and class are issues which often intersect, it is also important to consider the impact that each can have on individuals’ and communities’ wellbeing. Blacks with higher income levels than their white counterparts, for example, are still more likely to live in poorer neighbourhoods. Thus, the specific angle of race must be addressed to combat vulnerability and environmental degradation, as well as seeking to redress it. Based on longitudinal data for Chicago adolescents (1995-2013), Perkins and Sampson found that regardless of where an individual started out in 1995, blacks were at much greater risk of compounded poverty (that is both individual and neighbourhood poverty) later on than whites and Latinxs.

While realizing people’s economic rights will go a long way to reducing inequalities and are a clear requirement for socially sustainable, human rights-based development, evidence shows that economic empowerment without comprehensive and coordinated policies to address the intertwined roots of inequality does not necessarily foster equal access to healthy environments. Intersecting power structures and systems of oppression—such as systemic racism, patriarchy and classism—will need to be dismantled. The development community’s current roadmap, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, has taken an important step forward in recognizing the intersections between the environmental, social and economic dimensions of development and calling for transformative change. According to UNRISD; transformative change requires tackling precisely these intertwined roots of environmental destruction, poverty and inequality. Failing to consider the role of race in the process will undermine efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and ensure that all people are able to enjoy their rights.

Photo credit: "People's Climate March New York" by Climate Action Network (CCBY 2.0 via Flickr)



This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.