BLM protesters

Environmental and social justice must evolve hand-in-hand. A focus on only one aspect of our species’ sustainability can limit progress on all fronts. The issue of environmental racism, which loads the negative consequences of climate change, pollution, and adverse health effects on a single population, requires sustainability take a broad approach to resolve economic, social, and natural.

The Black Lives Matter movement is the continuation of a long struggle for racial equality in the United States. In 2013, the #BlackLivesMatter appeared on Twitter after the acquittal of the man who fatally shot Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African American teen.

The movement gained international attention in 2014 after the killing of two African American men, resulting in protests and unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. In 2020, global protests erupted in hundreds of communities across the U.S. and on three continents over the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Fueled by pandemic anxiety and existing racism, a backlash movement has emerged that we must address to reach an equitable net-zero society in time to prevent climate disaster.

People of all walks of life joined the Black Lives Matter cause and public support skyrocketed due to video footage of police violence. Although outrage about police brutality in black and brown communities took center stage, a national dialog has ensued to examine the systemic racism that permeates American society. What began as an urgent call to halt police brutality has expanded to a call to end systemic racism. Unfortunately, systemic racism can be difficult to detect because it is often the work of subtle biases that often go unnoticed yet put minority communities at risk.

Safety from violence, job opportunities, equal education, and access to quality medical care and food are crucial for racial equality and have a profound impact on our shared quality of life. The racial justice movement has been calling attention to another festering but often overlooked aspect of systemic inequality, environmental racism.

What Is Environmental Racism?

Numerous studies show that black and brown communities are disproportionately impacted by pollution, including toxic waste sites, air pollution, pesticide exposure, unsafe drinking water, and climate disasters. Children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of pollution, hindering health, quality of life, and even cognitive function.

Sadly, the numbers don’t lie; study after study highlights racial disparities in exposure to pollution. According to a 1987 study, race is the biggest factor if people live near a hazardous waste site. A 2016 study published in Environmental Research Letters found “a consistent pattern over a 30-year period of placing hazardous waste facilities in neighborhoods where poor people and people of color live.”

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.

According to Greenaction for Health & Environmental Justice, “Environmental racism refers to the institutional rules, regulations, policies or government and/or corporate decisions that deliberately target certain communities for locally undesirable land uses and lax enforcement of zoning and environmental laws.” As a result, these communities run a disproportionate risk of exposure to toxic and hazardous waste. Let’s look at some examples.

Flint, Michigan, Drinking Water

In 2014, officials from Flint, Michigan, switched the city’s water supply from Detroit’s system to the Flint River to save money. Due to improper treatment and testing, contaminated water caused a public health catastrophe. Sadly, officials ignored and disregarded community outcry that the public water supply was causing skin rashes and hair loss.

Eighteen months later, a study found that the contaminated water contributed to a doubling or even tripling of elevated blood lead levels in the children of Flint. Virginia Tech researchers took samples of water from 271 homes and found some that met the EPA’s criteria for “toxic waste.”

Getting officials to take strong, corrective action ultimately required a relentless outcry from the community, with support from scientists, medical professionals, activists, and journalists. Sadly, public health disasters of this type breed distrust of government officials, even if water testing shows a dramatic improvement.

Flint is 57% Black, 37% white, 4% Latino, and 4% mixed race. More than 41% of its residents live below the poverty level. Statewide, Blacks make up just 14% of the population, according to the U.S. Census.

The Michigan Civil Rights Commission determined that “race and racism played roles in causing the Flint water crisis.”  Arthur Horwitz, co-chair of the Commission during the investigation said, “We strongly believe that the actions that led to the poisoning of Flint’s water and the slow response resulted in the abridgment of civil rights for the people of Flint. We are not suggesting that those making decisions related to this crisis were racists, or meant to treat Flint any differently because it is a community of color.  Rather, the response is the result of implicit bias and the history of systemic racism that was built into the foundation of Flint.”

Cancer Alley in Louisiana

Located along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans are numerous oil refineries and petrochemical plants. In the heart of the industrial corridor is Reserve, a predominantly Black community. The risk of cancer from air pollution is the highest of anywhere in the U.S. at 50 times the national average, according to the EPA.

The toxic chemical, chloroprene, has been identified as a likely carcinogen in humans. In 2017, the EPA set up monitoring stations throughout the parish for the chemical. Testing outside the fifth ward elementary school next to the Pontchartrain Works facility revealed levels 755 times higher than the EPA’s guidance.

Yet, there is no federal or state standard for chloroprene emission and many residents have experienced decades of excessive exposure. Although the plant has taken some voluntary actions to reduce emissions and testing reveals a general downward trend, many residents are outraged by the lack of strong government action to safeguard residents.

Addressing Environmental Racism

Historically, the civil rights and environmental movements have been largely separate, yet some goals overlap. Air pollution is linked to higher mortality rates from COVID-19, a health crisis that is disproportionately impacting black and brown communities. Food deserts are more prevalent in Black and Latino neighborhoods, which impacts the natural food movement and land use. It is essential for the environmental movement to have a vision that incorporates racial equality.

Concern over environmental injustices has largely gone ignored, allowing the status quo to continue. In Flint, Michigan, support from many — including medical professionals, community activists, and the media — helped address a festering issue that was initially ignored by government officials. Greater collaboration and wider community support can magnify the impact of environmental justice work. People can take action through their purchases, encouraging government action, and supporting organizations that embrace environmental equality.

Racial justice and equality cannot truly occur in the U.S. without addressing the fact that pollution disproportionately impacts black and brown communities. Although renaming sports teams and retiring Aunt Jemima are big steps in the right direction, environmental justice requires long-term systemic changes.

A democracy cannot thrive where power remains unchecked and justice is reserved for a select few,” said John Lewis. “Ignoring these cries and failing to respond to this movement is simply not an option — for peace cannot exist where justice is not served.”

Feature image by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

By Sarah Lozanova

Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.