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environmental racism

Pollution and the risk of disaster is assigned to Black and Brown communities through racial discrimination and political neglect.

The first time you heard the term environmental racism may have been after Hurricane Katrina, during the ongoing Flint water crisis, or even as recently as Hurricane Harvey.  You may have thought, “What? How can the environment be racist?  It isn’t a person!”  And you wouldn’t be alone in your initial assessment.

Although the environment isn’t a person, large components of the environment are controlled by people, and people are racist and creative in the ways they come up with to harm people of color. As history and current events have shown, environmental racism is real.  It’s having long-term effects on communities of color, and it’s costing the country billions of dollars.

What is Environmental Racism?

Environmental racism is the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color. The air we breathe, the water we drink, even the neighborhoods we end up living in are controlled by policies and practices.  Redlining and housing discrimination of the 20th century is responsible for segregating people of color into the least desirable neighborhoods. 50 percent of people who live near hazardous waste are people of color (think Cancer Alley in Louisiana), and floodplains (think Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Harvey)  throughout the country have a high Black and Latinx populations. Additionally, Black children are twice as likely to suffer from lead poisoning as white children (think Flint water crisis).  

These disparate health outcomes are no accident; they are by design. Pollution and the risk of disaster is assigned to Black and Brown communities through racial discrimination and political neglect. In regards to environmental discrimination, racism trumps classism.  Middle class Black people are more likely to live in polluted neighborhoods than poor white. In fact, one study found that Black people making between $50-$60k were more likely to be exposed to environmental hazards that whites who only made $10k.

Black and Brown people cannot buy their way out of the systemic effects of environmental racism. The political will of Black and Brown communities has not made environmental racism go away either. People of color have less political clout, so our needs often go ignored by those elected to represent us. This was the case in Flint, Michigan when residents protested the dirty drinking water for a year. Their concerns went largely ignored by local and state officials until the story made national news. Still, Flint, which is 57 percent Black, is without clean drinking water.


The History of Environmental Racism

Although climate change makes the effects of environmental racism more apparent, environmental racism has been around long before Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth. Enslaved Africans were a commodity for their free, forced labor and because this labor involved being exposed to environmental hazards, such as extreme heat and malaria, that were unacceptable for white workers. This pattern has continued with migrant workers who pick millions of pounds of produce in extreme heat for low wages while being exposed to pesticides.

Jim Crow era segregation placed Black communities in neighborhoods that were hazardous to their health. Now, people renting apartments and homes from miserly landlords often have to deal with poor residential air quality and drinking water due to lead in the paint and pipes. This leads to more Black children being afflicted by asthma. Environmental racism isn’t a trivial cause; people of color are more likely to die from environmental causes than whites.

Resources for Hurricane Harvey victims

If we learned anything from Hurricane Katrina, we learned that we cannot wait for the government to come save us.  And with Trump in office, well now is the time to come together and help victims of Hurricane Harvey in any way you can. In addition to amplifying requests from Hurricane Harvey victims on social media, we recommend giving to local organizations to ensure that your donation reaches its intended beneficiary.

Below you can find two Google Documents outlining organizations and people who can use your support:

Organizations supporting Hurricane Harvey Victims: Harvey – Money for the People

Black Women displaced by Hurricane Harvey: #SupportBlackWomenHOU


Learn more about Environmental Racism

City Lab:

Resolving the Racism at the Heart of Flint’s Water Crisis

How Environmental Injustice Connects


What do racism and poverty have to do with pollution and climate change?

Trump’s plan to slash the EPA budget is “environmental racism in action”






Katie is a UX writer and content creator working in the tech industry. She helps academics, professionals, and creatives share their expertise by coaching them through the writing and publishing process. When's she not writing, reading, or devouring chocolate chip cookies, she's loudly pretending to be from Atlanta. Follow her on Twitter and the 'gram @blkkatie.

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