Environmental Racism in the Works

Let's start by defining the term "environmental racism." Environmental racism is policy or practice that differentially affects or disadvantages (intentionally or unintentionally) individuals, groups, or communities because of their race and/or class. Poor communities and communities of color often experience disproportionate impacts of environmental hazards. For a more holistic, in-depth definition, here's Professor of Sociology Daniel Faber from Northeastern University with his take on the issue:

With all of the environmental issues going on today, it's easy to think that the media is doing a decent job of covering environmental disasters as they occur and "green" moves businesses are making, etc. However, when do you hear about the location of toxic waste processing facilities or PCB landfills, and the extremely harmful effects they are having on those communities?

Half of all Native Americans and three out of every five African Americans and Latinos living well below the poverty line are also living in areas situated close to toxic waste sites. Living near these dangerous facilities has significant impacts on all aspects of these peoples' lives. Their air, water, and food can all be affected, noise pollution and vibrations become a problem, the awful stench permeates everything, schools, workplaces, and homes become unsafe places, and a multitude of different health effects can result.

Some case studies of environmental racism have been made public, usually due to affected community members fighting back and taking legal or direct action, protesting, and petitioning for their rights. One example is Chester, Pennsylvania, a predominantly black city of nearly 34,000 located in Delaware County, which is 91% white, where rates of both poverty and violence are some of the highest in the state. A number of commercial waste facilities located in Chester process all of the waste generated by the entire county.

The following video clip is a powerful tribute to the hardships the Chester community has been through, and how they have dealt with cases of environmental racism both in the past and to this day.

Any economic benefits promised by these waste processing facilities are completely overwhelmed by the negative environmental and health impacts they also bring. As stated in the video, as of the year 2008, the incinerator in Chester continued to burn thousands of tons of trash each day. It's hard to say if anything of significance has actually changed in Chester over the past 2 decades. As one public official told citizens of Chester in regards to their attempts to combat the toxic facilities being implemented in their city, "It's a legal matter," to which they responded, "No, it's not. It's a moral matter. It's something you wouldn't want done to your worst enemy." 

With increasing environmental regulations here in the U.S., it is often easier for corporations to dispose of their waste in other countries where the regulations are less strict or in some cases, nonexistent or at least not closely enforced. These areas tend to be impoverished and inhabited by tribes, indigenous peoples, or lower-class peoples who are already disadvantaged in other ways. One example among many is the case of the Lago Agrio oil field in Ecuador, where Texaco/Chevron drilled for a period of 20 years, starting in the early 1970's. The total amount of oil procured from the site earned the Texaco/Chevron company $25 billion. The local citizens have been forced to contend with the consequences of the drilling for 40 years. These consequences include water pollution, contaminated soils, rainforest destruction, massive crude oil spills, chemical-laden toxic waste dumps, and a huge number of resulting health effects as well as negative cultural impacts. Since 1993, affected citizens have been caught up in a brutal legal battle against the Texaco/Chevron company. The environmental degradation has yet to be cleaned up or compensated for. 

Perhaps most currently, the situation in Giuyu, China where a huge portion of the world's "e-waste"-our old, discarded electronic goods-is being processed is yet another instance of environmental racism at work. As a result of the processing of such extraordinary amounts of e-waste, Giuyu has the highest level of cancer-causing dioxins in the world. I plan to analyze the issue of e-waste and other current case studies regarding environmental racism in future blog posts.

Let me know of other cases of environmental racism you may be aware of in the comments section! 



Re: Environmental Racism in the Works

Environmental Racism supports the notions of power and privilege, whereby those at the bottom are typically the ones that suffer. It is a moral matter, but how can the people being affected influence those doing the affecting? Would it be right to say that those with the privilege are blind to morals? Blind to their own actions? If we look at environmental racism as a broader global issue, one might argue that the current systems/institutions/structures almost always tend to benefit the top percent, while the bottom percent are the one's whose rights and obligations get swept under the rug.


Another example to look at might be South Sudan/Kenya and the goal for an intended oil pipeline that wouid reach the coast of Kenya while pumping through South Sudan. This is a project that would be supported/funded by China as the Chinese seek to exploit more and more oil out of oil-rich regions of Africa. For the Chinese, they are seeing the benefits that they will be reaping and the increased money as a result. For Kenyans and South Sudanese, their environment will get destroyed and potential conflict zones might arise, especially as fight for power and control over the pipeline becomes more and more heated. What give the Chinese the right to do this? The answer, as it always has been, is power and privilege. China has more money and more clout than their African counterparts and they feel the need to take advantage of this.

Simply put, the big countries and powers are the bullies while those being bullied are the ones who lose. How can we make it so that morals DO matter? Is it possible? One can only hope!.


Thanks for blogging. Looking forward to reading more!


Allison Paludi

Re: Environmental Racism in the Works

Thanks for commenting Allison, and for sharing the case study regarding South Sudan & Kenya- definitely a perfect example of environmental racism and something to look into more. I agree, in all of these cases, morality is really what it all comes down to.