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October 19, 2022 || What is environmental racism and how does it work? 

“Tell me your zip code, I can tell you how healthy you are.” 

-Dr. Robert Bullard, professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University

A term coined in 1982, environmental racism is a form of systematic racism whereby communities of color are disproportionately burdened with health hazards through policies and practices that force them to live in proximity to sources of toxic waste or pollutants such as sewage works, mines, landfills, power stations, major roads and emitters of airborne particulate matter. As a result, these communities suffer greater rates of health problems. Environmental racism is generally supported by a collection of official rules, regulations, common practices, policies and decisions made by a government or corporation that deliberately targets communities of color for “locally undesirable” land uses and lax enforcement of zoning and environmental laws. 

In other words, because the residents of these neighborhoods often have little political or financial clout, it’s far easier for companies and governments to dump hazardous chemical waste or put a heavily polluting freeway there than in your typical white neighborhood.

What does it look like? 

Environmental racism was first noticed in the late 1970s, after residents of a Black middle-class neighborhood in Houston, Texas, received the unwelcome news that their little corner of the city would be the future home of a solid-waste dump. “Why here and not somewhere else?” they wondered. So they looked into it and discovered that even though only 25% of the city’s population was Black, 14 of the 17 industrial waste sites (82%) were in Black neighborhoods. 

It’s a well-established pattern that systematically harms communities of color.

    • Countless studies dating back to the ’70s have shown that minority groups–and Black communities in particular–suffer disproportionately from a slew of environmental hazards.
    • A nationwide study conducted in 1987 concluded that the single best predictor of whether someone would live near a toxic waste site was race.
    • A study by the EPA found that Blacks in America are exposed to 1.5 times more disease-causing pollutants than whites.
    • Communities of color who live near industrial agriculture are home to lagoons of pollutants and waste that produce hydrogen sulfide and drive up miscarriages, birth defects, and disease. 
    • Living in toxic conditions can also cause cancer, other forms of reproductive harm, and respiratory illnesses such as asthma.
    • Because of their high exposure to environmental contaminants in the air and water, people who live in communities of color have a higher incidence of co-morbidity and therefore an increased likelihood of dying from COVID-19. 
    • EPA studies have repeatedly found that race is a more reliable indicator of proximity to pollution than income alone. These are the neighborhoods that people of color were forced into through discriminatory housing policies (i.e. by excluding them from other neighborhoods and denying their loans – aka redlining).

There are thousands of examples in the Bay Area 

    • A 2021 study found that in West and Downtown Oakland, where more than 70% of the population is people of color, up to 1 in 2 new childhood asthma cases were due to traffic-related air pollution. By contrast, in an Oakland Hills neighborhood where more than 70% of the population is white, the fraction of childhood asthma from pollution is much lower—about 1 in every 5 cases. 
    • In Oakland, a ban on heavy trucks on Interstate 580, which runs through predominantly white neighborhoods, essentially redirects this heavily polluting traffic to Interstate 880, which is surrounded by predominantly BIPOC neighborhoods. Kids in these neighborhoods suffer higher rates of asthma hospitalizations.
    • In predominantly BIPOC Marin City, the community suffers from cracked lead-based water pipes, a lack of drainage pipes at the entrance to Marin City and pervasive contaminants from the highway.

How you can help

The “Right To Health,” defined as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity,” is written into the World Health Organization’s founding document as a basic human right. It further asserts that the “Right To Health” is for all people WITHOUT distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition. Fixing the problem of environmental racism is the moral and ethical thing to do. 

      1. Practice self-education. Start keeping an eye out for instances of environmental racism and educate yourself about the issues at the local level. It’s here in Marin. 
      2. Elevate the voices of impacted communities. Seek out environmental justice organizations that are working to protect these underrepresented people. Follow them on social media, retweet/reshare their posts, and give to their causes. 
      3. Learn about and support
      4. Hold your representatives accountable. Sign the petitions (they do make a difference). 
      5. Use the power of boycotts. If you know of companies that are benefiting from environmental racism, stop buying their products and encourage your friends to do the same. 

Further reading