Tuesday, 10 December 2019

The -ism Series (35): Environmental Racism

"Environmental racism is racial discrimination in environmental policy-making and enforcement of regulations of laws, the deliberate targeting of communities of color for toxic waste facilities, the official sanctioning of the presence of life threatening poisons and pollutants for communities of color, and the history of excluding people of color from leadership of the environmental movement."
Chavis cited in Holifield (2001)

We strongly believe that the actions that led to the poisoning of Flint’s water and the slow response resulted in the abridgement 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.
Arthur Horwitz
Environmental racism means that ethnic minority groups are burdened disproportionally by both decision-making processes and distributive patterns (Holifield, 2001). Examples are locating polluting facilities mainly in communities of colour and introducing environmental laws that are racist in their implementation and application (Lazarus, 2000).

A report published back in 1987 found that ethnicity was "the predominant factor related to the presence of hazardous wastes in residential communities throughout the United States", even "the most significant determinant of the location of hazardous waste facilities" (Godsil, 1991). Things do not seem to have changed as study after study indicate the disproportionate risks from pollution ethnic minorities face. According to a report published in 2018, "people of colour" and people in poverty "are exposed to more fine particulate matter", a carcinogen and contributor to lung conditions, heart attacks, asthma, low birth weights, high blood pressure, and premature deaths. The more an area is segregated, the higher the levels of exposure (via).

Reasons discussed are, for instance, economic ones like locating facilities where it is the least costly to build and maintain - which happens to be in so-called communities in colour - to the residents' economic powerlessness and their limited economic ability to move to other residential areas. Minority groups are, in addition, usually politically weak and cannot conduct campaigns against the companies' decisions successfully. Neither are they sufficiently represented in governement (Fisher, 1994).

- - - - - - - - -
- Fisher, M. R. (1994). On the Road from Environmental Racism to Environmental Justice. Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law Digital Repository, 5(2), 449-478, link
- Godsil, R. D. (1991). Remedying Environmental Racism. Michigan Law Review, 90(2), link
- Holifield, R. (2001). Defining Environmental Justice and Environmental Racism. Urban Geography, 22(1), 78-90.
- Lazarus, R. J. (2000). "Environmental Racism! That's What It Is." Georgetown University Law Center, link
- photograph of siblings Julie, Antonio, and India Abron collecting their daily allowance of bottled water from Fire Station 3, Flint, Michigan (by Wayne Lawrence, National Geographic) via


  1. The photo is incredibly impressive.

    1. It is, indeed. You can see more photographs taken of people living in Flint here: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2016/02/160209-flint-michigan-portraits-photography-lead/