Racial Justice without Environmental Justice is No Justice at All

March 16, 2021

Lexie Shah

Lexie Shah is a fourth-year undergraduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, where she studies political science in the College of Arts & Sciences and is a Wharton public policy research scholar. Her interests include international affairs, environmental policy, and criminal justice reform.

During the summer of 2020, the nation was seized by a movement combating systemic anti-Black racism embedded in the fabric of the United States. Discussions concerning police brutality have recently widened to highlight other forms of discrimination, including environmental racism. The term defines decades of discrimination that have fomented an unequal distribution of environmental risks across races, with Black and brown communities hit the hardest. A history of deliberate segregation played a pivotal role in constructing these disparities, and its legacy continues to target Black communities today. It has, therefore, become clear that any fight for racial equity must also seek environmental justice both federally and locally to alleviate the disproportionate impact environmental harm is inflicting on Black communities. This article offers an overview of multiple environmental justice challenges and suggests needed policy shifts at the federal, state, and local levels to help overcome them.

Environmental racism is one outcome of a concerted political and economic effort to engage in racial segregation. Beginning in the 1930s, federal officials developed maps of major American cities for real estate and economic investment, rating neighborhoods from “best” to “hazardous,” the latter of which were predominantly Black areas redlined by banks and therefore barred from mortgages and investment opportunities.

Chronic disinvestment in these redlined Black neighborhoods, coupled with political disenfranchisement and feeble political agency, resulted in lower property values and lax zoning regulations, making them especially attractive for polluting facilities like toxic waste sites and power plants. Undoubtedly, redlining facilitated Black Americans’ concentration in neighborhoods with greater environmental risks and created barriers insurmountable for these individuals to build generational wealth and migrate to safer areas.

The many remnants of redlining endure to this day, including pollution in these neighborhoods, which has rendered the air deadly. Studies from as early as the 1980s have shown that communities of color, specifically Black ones, are more likely to live near noxious polluting facilities. Two recent studies crystallize the effects of this relationship.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) National Center for Environmental Assessment found that compared to whites, African Americans are exposed to approximately 1.5 times more particulate matter (PM), an air pollutant linked to the burning of fossil fuels and a known carcinogen associated with lung conditions, heart problems, and asthma. A second study found that nitrogen dioxide (NO2) concentrations are 38% higher in communities of color. NO2, an EPA criteria pollutant largely emitted from combustion by power plants and vehicles, is linked to asthma, lung problems in children, and heart disease.

Both of these studies highlight the significant and racialized impact of these toxic industries exploiting overlooked, underserved, and politically weak low-income Black neighborhoods. It is thus unsurprising that Black Americans are three times more likely to die from pollution than white Americans. Risks deriving from both PM and NO2 emissions are exacerbated by the fact that Black communities face inadequate access to nutritional food and insufficient healthcare systems to offset their risk. Consequently, environmental racism is inexorably linked to other facets of systemic racism, and they coalesce to place an unjust burden on the Black community.

It is increasingly evident that “I can’t breathe,” as desperately uttered by George Floyd and Eric Garner, not only applies during instances of police brutality, but also to environmental racism. It is a common refrain for tens of thousands of Black Americans breathing polluted air. As long as these environmental disparities exist, Black communities will continue to suffer, no matter how much other progress on fighting racism there may be. The intersectionality between environmental harm and race must consequently be confronted and prioritized.

But how exactly do we protect Black Americans’ right to simply breathe? Action must be taken at the federal, state, and local levels to surmount the harrowing consequences of environmental racism, and below are a handful of recommendations concerning how the government could proceed:

1. Target environmental policies to vulnerable communities of color

Federally, legislators must engage in targeted strategies that explicitly consider disproportionately affected communities. Specifically, the federal government must guarantee that a certain percentage of federal investments into a clean energy economy be earmarked for anti-pollution efforts in Black communities. This will engender sustained economic opportunity and build resilient infrastructure, affording these neighborhoods opportunities to build wealth.  Additionally, President Biden must keep his promise to “hold polluters accountable” in minority communities by directing the EPA to resume referring anti-pollution civil rights cases to the Department of Justice, which had dwindled under the Trump administration. This will ensure that communities can seek justice for disproportionate harm and deter polluters from flagrantly disregarding their negative environmental impacts.

2. Strengthen scrutiny of hazardous development proposals

State and local governments are also inseverable from the solution and should positively wield zoning laws that have historically sustained environmental injustice. Specifically, municipalities should curb the proliferation of hazardous sites in at-risk communities through outright bans, more robust environmental reviews that engage in equity screening for development proposals, and stricter public health codes. These efforts should be coupled with the adoption of the precautionary principle, which places the burden not on proving that an activity is harmful, but rather that it is safe. The precautionary principle has been adopted in Massachusetts’s Toxic Use Reduction Act with great success and can serve as a model for other states.

3. Give Black, indigenous, and other communities of color a seat at the table

Crucially, for there to be sustained and significant change, political leaders must listen to and work with affected communities, which know the most about the challenges they face and how to tackle them. Cycles of disinvestment and disenfranchisement in these communities will only be broken when individuals from these vulnerable areas are offered seats at the table to share their stories, articulate their needs, and feel seen—seemingly basic requests that yet have been historically denied.

Last summer taught us that racism is prolific; environmental injustice is yet another example of how historically discriminatory practices have damaged Black communities. As climate change becomes an ever-increasing threat, mitigation strategies that empower the most devastated communities and address inequities that the government itself enabled will prove instrumental in the environmental and racial healing of this nation.