Saturday, August 3, 2019

Environmental Racism 101

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There has been an great deal of discussion about racism and the American Presidency in recent weeks. I thought it was a good moment to provide a bit of introductory background on the study of environmental racism for students or faculty interested in teaching or learning about the topic.

The understanding of environmental racism emerged in the 1960's and 1970's as activists noted that the environmental movement of the time focused largely on issues like preservation of natural lands as opposed to environmental quality in cities and other places that were home to people of color. Up until that time, the environmental movement was, in part, white, middle class, and somewhat elitist. 

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Certainly many environmental activists of the time worked on issues of concern to all peoples such as clean air and clean water. However, it did not typically address the problems of the poor or of the specific environmental challenges present in minority communities. Many poor people of color who were concerned about the environmental issues in their communities felt left behind.

In the United States, of course, the Civil Rights Movement highlighted the economic and social disparities among the races and sought greater equity. Within this movement, some noted the poor environmental quality of homes, neighborhoods, and local resources.

A number of important community activists began to advocate for improved environmental conditions. Hazel M. Johnson, a community activist in the South Side of Chicago, is perhaps the most well-known of these activists and she has been given the appellation, The Mother of the 
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Environmental Justice Movement. She noted that many people in public (and private) housing in her community ended up with strange diseases and cancers. She urged local officials to examine water quality in the area. As it turned out, many in the area were drinking well water that was receiving water contaminated by toxic plumes left over from old industrial activities. It took years to get clean water lines to the area after the first illnesses began. Many look to this situation as one of the first important efforts to demonstrate environmental racism in the United States.

Another pioneer during this period was Robert Bullard, who is often called The Father of Environmental Justice. I posted one of my regular environmental quizzes about him and his work here. In 1990, he published a very influential book called Dumping in Dixie which demonstrated how poor and minority communities were disproportionately impacted by the presence of landfills in their community. This regional analysis pointed out how there was systemic racism in the decision-making around where landfills are located in this country.

Since then, a broader field of environmental justice has emerged which tries to examine whether or not communities are sharing the equal benefits and burdens of projects that impact the environment. Environmental racism has become a subfield of environmental justice.

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There are many examples of environmental racism that we can find in the news from the last several years. Certainly one of the most obvious examples is the Flint water crisis. However, there are many others such as the decision-making around the Dakota Access Pipeline. A whole new body of environmental literature has emerged on the topics of environmental racism and environmental justice.

It is important to note that environmental racism is not just an American issue. For example, the broad transfer of plastic or electronic waste problems to poor countries is another example that falls within the realm of environmental racism.

There is so much more that could be covered on this topic, but this is a simple introduction to provide some basic background material. Please add any other ideas in the comments as to what content could be added to a short unit on environmental racism in a classroom setting.

Here are some discussion questions to consider if you are teaching on this topic:

1. Hazel M. Johnson died in 2011. What is her legacy?
2. How is environmental justice different from environmental racism?
3. Robert Bullard studied the impacts of landfills on poor and minority communities. Do you know where your garbage goes? How might the waste that you produce impact other people?
4. What measures can be taken to ensure that all people in a community share the equal benefits and burdens of projects that impact the environment?
5. Can you think of any environmental justice or environmental racism issues in your community? Describe the issue(s).
6. Some would argue that climate change is an environmental justice or environmental racism issue. Do you agree or disagree with this assertion? Why?
7. Conduct a Google Scholar search of environmental racism within the years 2015 and 2019. What types of research on the topic has been published?
8. People from all over the world read this blog. What types of environmental justice issues are happening in your country right now?

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