Why Environmental Racism Remains a Problem for Communities of Color

Stone's Throw Landfill
Stone's Throw Landfill. Earthjustice.org

Environmental racism may not get the press coverage that police brutality receives, but it can be just as deadly. Communities of color have long suffered the consequences of having landfills, factory farms and other polluters in their neighborhoods. When they develop adverse health effects as a result, they might not know where to turn for help, or their cries for help may go unheard. Get the facts on environmental racism with this review of the issue, including a definition, examples and the actions taken to address the problem.


What Is Environmental Racism?

Environmental racism occurs when people of color disproportionately bear the brunt of environmental hazards. Government officials, for example, may opt to put a landfill in the middle of a poor Hispanic neighborhood rather than an affluent white area. As a result, the Latinos in the community began to develop respiratory problems, eye irritation or even cancer. Their quality of life is diminished because of the ever present stench in the air. Meanwhile, the affluent whites can enjoy being outside because there’s no toxic odor in the air making them sick. The affluent whites will likely live longer than the poor Latinos situated next to a landfill.

Robert Bullard of Texas Southern University is known as the “father of environmental justice.” The African American activist described environmental racism as follows during an interview with Earth First! Journal.

Race is still the potent factor for predicting where locally unwanted land uses go,” Bullard said.

“A lot of people say it’s class, but race and class are intertwined. Because the society is so racist and because racism touches every institution—employment, housing, education, facility siting, land use decisions, you can’t really extract race out of decisions that are being made by persons who are in power and the power arrangements are unequal.”

Racism, he went on to say, influences zoning practices, environmental policy, enforcement, land use and more.

Taking Action Against Environmental Racism

In the 1980s, a group of Latinas known as Mothers of East L.A. made national headlines because of its environmental justice efforts. MELA took part in protests when California Thermal Treatment Systems announced plans to place an incinerator near schools, residences, hospitals and more in Vernon, a city outside of Los Angeles. The group ultimately sued the Environmental Protection Agency for neglecting to create an environmental impact report related to the proposed incinerator. Due to years of public outcry, the incinerator project unraveled in 1991. MELA soon after protested against a proposed treatment plant operating in Huntington Park, a predominantly Latino community. For financial reasons, the treatment plant never came to fruition.

Contemporary Examples of Environmental Racism

In the 21st century, blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans continue to be subjected to environmental racism. Since the 1990s, the mostly black residents in a neighborhood in Tallassee, Ala., have complained about Stone’s Throw Landfill. They complain about vultures, a stench in the air and related health problems.

Yet, when they reached out to the EPA to investigate whether the landfill violated their civil rights, the organization ignored them, according to Earthjustice, which filed a lawsuit against the EPA in 2015 on behalf of the Tallassee residents.

Earthjustice is also advocating for black victims of factory farms in North Carolina. Factory farms operate as follows, the group explained:

“Farmers flush gallons of hog feces and urine into open pits lined only with clay and then spray the ‘liquid manure’ onto nearby fields. The waste leaches out of the open pits and flows as run-off from the fields, polluting nearby waterways. When it’s sprayed, the fecal matter also drifts as mist onto neighboring homes, clinging to hair and clothes and forcing residents indoors.”

More than 2,000 factory farms may operate in North Carolina, and the bulk of which do in African American areas.

This makes them more likely to develop high blood pressure, breathing difficulties and a variety of other health problems.

The members of Youth for Environmental Justice in Los Angeles say they’re suffering adverse health effects from living near oil fields in the South L.A. community of Wilmington. As a result, that group, along with South Central Youth Leadership Coalition and the Center for Biological Diversity, filed a lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles on Nov. 6, 2015. According to the suit, the city has violated rules meant to protect residents from the oil fields. It also alleges that wells in white neighborhoods were cleaned up or eliminated, while wells have become more toxic in communities of color.

The EPA’s Response to Environmental Racism Claims

The EPA has a less than stellar record of responding to environmental racism claims, according to a report released by the Center for Public Integrity in April 2015. At that time, the EPA had been taking environmental racism complaints for 22 years, but “the EPA office tasked with policing alleged civil rights abuses is chronically unresponsive to complaints and has never made a formal finding of discrimination.” A staggering 95 percent of the time, the EPA denies discrimination claims. And that’s after taking a year on average to decide if it will investigate such allegations at all.

Wrapping Up

Environmental racism was a problem in the 20th century and continues to be a problem today. Worsening matters is that victims may not get help from the government to avoid exposure to landfills, treatment plants, factory farms and more. Accordingly, community members may have to act on their own—organizing protests, filing lawsuits and launching letter-writing campaigns—to protect their health.