Environmental Racism – A modern phenomenon or an old trend?

The term Environmental Racism may be recent to some, but the definition expresses a growing socio-economic problem in the climate change crisis. The definition has been the subject of various articles because of the difference in underlying philosophies. According to an approach of the United States:

‘‘Environmental racism refers to the way in which minority group neighbourhoods (populated primarily by people of colour and members of low socio-economic groups) are burdened with a disproportionate number of hazards, including toxic waste facilities, garbage dumps, and other sources of ecological pollution and foul odours that lower the quality of life.’’ [4]

Laurent 2011 defines a European approach of environmental justice and divides it into three parts which are:

  1. ‘‘Distributive justice…concerned with how green ‘goods’ (e.g. access to green space) and environmental ‘bads’ (e.g. pollution and risk) are distributed between different groups and the fairness or equity of this distribution.’’
  2. ‘‘Procedural justice (…) concerned with the fairness or equity of access to environmental decision-making processes and to rights and recourse in environmental law.’’
  3. ‘‘Policy justice (…) concerned with the principles and outcomes of environmental policy decisions and how these affect different social groups.’’

The similarities between these definitions are quite obvious. Both definitions – the American and European one – recognize that low-income communities face a more significant risk to work and live in harsh environmental conditions. However, the major difference is that the American approach focuses on minority groups, entitled to natural rights, and the intention is to fight and correct any inequalities according to those rights. [1] On the other hand, the European context (mainly from the United Kingdom and Scotland) recognizes social processes that lead to instances of inequality. [1]

The Environmental Justice Movement envisions the environment not just as a physical entity that needs to be preserved and conserved, but also: “Where we live, work, play, learn and pray.” [2] As already mentioned, environmental racism focuses on the unfair balance of ecological benefits and pollution problems based on race. Environmental justice, therefore, represents the social movement formed to unite and overcome these issues in minority communities. [6]

Even though pollution remains a universal problem, minority groups worldwide are more likely to face health issues caused by increased exposure to contaminants in the air, soil, and water. [4] This could be explained by unsafe or unhealthy working conditions due to lack of proper regulations (or enforcement), or communities that live close by toxic waste sites. [4]

It should be noted that environmental racism in minority communities is not only because of neighbouring polluting industries, but also, historical locations on lands vulnerable to severe weather conditions. [7] Additionally, environmental racism is not only present in minorities on national levels, but it is also present on the international scale. [7] This has been observed when polluting industries relocate from richer developed countries, with strict regulation and monitoring to poorer developing countries where these regulations are often exploited by bribes. [7] There has been a general counterargument to environmental racism that these circumstances result from poverty and not racism. [7] However, a report concluded by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in February 2019 proved that this argument is misleading and stated that: “Disparities [in exposure to PM emissions] for minorities are more pronounced than are disparities on the basis of poverty status.” [7]

Like other social injustices, minority communities suffer because of a lack of resources when it comes to addressing environmental racism. [7] Wealthier populations are financially able to ward off any polluting construction by employing legal and political means where necessary – whereas the impoverished communities are unable to employ such methods. [7] Thus, the lack of resistance from the poorer societies makes it easier for the polluting industries to set up sites in these areas. [7] It has also been challenged that hazardous companies provide economic security for disadvantaged peoples, by offering them to work for the very companies that are destroying their community. [7] Furthermore, there is an absence of representation in environmental leadership in those societies. Whether it is a lack of minorities represented in a developed nations’ environmental community or a lack of local participation in a low-income developing nations’ ecological assessment, these groups are disengaged from the environmental movement. [7] This reinforces more problems in poor communities who cannot oppose environmental atrocities committed by polluting industries. As follows, the cycle is perpetuated where lack of resistance encourages the polluting industries to construct nearby these communities. [7]

The historical American background

The concept of environmental justice was founded in the United States during the racial discourse movement in the mid-80s.’ It was intended to bring to light the environmental racism faced by the racial minorities, focusing on African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans, which was highlighted by the implementation of environmental policy in the country [1]. The most prominent event that started the environmental justice movement happened in 1982, when African American residents of Warren County were against the construction of a toxic waste landfill [1]. The protests started in this North Carolina district had a domino effect on other Southern communities that faced similar circumstances, which led to the publication of a report [1]. This infamous report Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States was written by the United Church of Christ in 1987 and was the first of its kind to discuss this issue [1]. It practically supported nationwide relation between racial and social characteristics of communities that neighbour toxic sites and proved that African Americans were twice as likely to be exposed to one environmental hazard compared to White Americans [1]. In 1990, another influential paper by Bullard encouraged various African American organizations to meet and discuss with the EPA concerning documentation of unequal environmental rights of minorities [1]. The EPA responded and investigated the troubling claim that “racial minority and low-income populations bear a higher environmental risk burden than the general population.’’ [1]. They produced a report (Environmental Equity: Reducing Risk in All Communities, 1992) that supported previous studies about environmental injustices in minority communities, and the Congressional black caucus offered some recommendations to prosper environmental fairness [1]. One of these suggestions was taken into consideration by the Clinton Administration to implement an office to deal with these injustices. The Office of Environmental Justice (formerly the Office for Environmental Equity) was formed, becoming the first official governmental body dealing with environmental justice [1]. This historic move in civic activism, along with intense knowledge sharing and concise decision-making, enabled the agenda to grow. In recent times, this discussion has been integrated into US public debates and national policies at the federal level [1].

Despite all the agendas set in place to support environmental justice, minority communities are still at elevated risk in the US. Louisiana still houses more than 125 oil and chemical plants and this chemical strip between New Orleans and Baton Rouge is sometimes referred to as ‘‘Cancer Alley’’ [1]. It comes as no surprise that this area predominantly consists of impoverished communities, most of them being African Americans [1].

But not all hope is lost, as there is a rise in environmental justice activists who help fight environmental racism for minority communities. Two recipients of the Goldman Environmental Prize, Margie Eugen-Richard (2004) and Destiny Watford (2016) are such examples in the African American community [3]. Margie who as the first African American to receive this award, lived in a Louisiana county that suffered the terrible and toxic effects of Shell Chemicals. She fought for 30 years and was able to get Shell to reduce their emissions and pay a hefty $5 million dollars to the residents of her town in Diamond [3]. Destiny also fought for her small county in Baltimore, a county plagued with polluting industries and sewage treatment plants when the largest incinerator in US history was constructed near her high school. She gained the support of her school and the local community to oppose this project, to stop the extremely high mercury emissions. Ultimately, the incinerator was discontinued, and Destiny continues fighting for environmental justice with her student organization ‘‘Free your voice’’ [3].

Examples in the Global Arena

In recent years, there has been an increase in the recognition of climate change in governments worldwide. There is a global consensus that the effects of air pollution are a burden on healthcare and a consequence of climate change. Unfortunately, in global governance it has not been fully recognized that climate change is also a problem of environmental injustice. It should be mentioned that the Paris Agreement acknowledges the injustices caused by historical events as well as the problems and effects of climate change. However, developing countries and vulnerable nation-states are inadequately funded, and mitigation efforts are still lacking [5]. Below are some examples of global environmental injustices that are encountered by poor communities in low-income developing nations.

Agricultural Production

It has been widely observed that large transnational corporations are manipulative to local officials through corruption to suppress local opposition in the preservation of traditional agriculture [5]. Small-scale farmers are the unfortunate victims and suffer under the current economic market where they compete to maximize production at the cost of human health and the environment [5]. Therefore, this leads to increased short cuts in safety which is somehow accommodated in the name of fulfilling economic pressures caused by unfair economic systems [5]. For example, small farmers in South Africa have been under pressure to implement expensive agricultural technologies like pesticides and genetically modified crops [5]. These pressures come from external sources, where companies heavily advocate for continued use of harmful chemicals and internal sources, where the increased production costs lead them into getting loans and destabilizing their financial security [5]. Additionally, the farmers receive no extra assistance in protecting their families from the health and environmental risks caused by these harmful techniques. Consequently, these small farmers facing heavy pressures break down and suicide rates increase, which has been reported in South Asia and Brazil [5]. Another reason for the increased suicide rates is the exposure to neurotoxic organophosphate pesticides, which are not direct causes of suicide but influence higher rates of depression [5]. Small farmers are caught in the crossfire between exposure to hazardous chemicals, unfair economic guidelines and social marginalization which intensifies the issues of environmental racism [5]. This is mostly in part due to global economic systems that are set by boardrooms and organizations from high-income developed nations disconnected to the individuals working and suffering under these policies [5]. Unfortunately, because of the global shifts in food production policies, the situation only seems to get worse for these small farmers. Because of the developing energy crisis, biofuel crops have been added to production requirements, adding to food crops and cash crops [5]. This added necessity has affected global food prices which have increased and hurts the already poor and hungry population of the world. It has been reported that this shift in food production has increased the starving population to 600 million globally, and increased 10s of millions more into poverty and setting off the social concern. [4]


Adding to the already precarious amount of waste, e-waste is growing to become the highest waste stream globally. With increasing consumer demand and consummation, electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) is also rising in correlation [5]. These technologies have become part of our daily applications ranging from household appliances to telecommunication devices and are known to contain valuable materials like aluminium, palladium, copper, iron and silver which can be recycled [5]. In contrast, they also contain toxic substances like lead, chromium, chemicals in plastics and mercury which pose a great health risk on exposure [5]. In 2017 alone, 44 million tonnes of e-waste was generated globally, which is the equivalent of six kilograms for each person on the planet [8]. Not surprisingly, the largest producers of e-waste come from the developed world and about 80% of the annual waste is shipped to poor developing countries in Asia and Africa to be disposed of or recycled [5]. This is mainly due to strong governance in these high-income regions where the population’s health and environment are protected as well as stable income opportunities [5]. Alternatively, weak safety regulations in Asia and Africa promotes informal institutions to recycle this e-waste. Because of that, the recyclers resort to simple manual methods like melting cables and plastics as well as utilizing acid baths that cause significant risk to human health and rising pollution levels in the air and water supplies [5]. Even if the hazardous effects of the particular substances in e-waste are identified, the long-term effects of e-waste are still not fully clear, especially combined with unknown chemical mixes [5]. These poverty-stricken workers are unfortunately not completely aware of what these basic recycling methods could do to their health and most of the time they have no choice because these jobs provide economic opportunities, which as discussed earlier are a factor that contributes to environmental racism [5]. The most shocking part of e-waste recyclers is that many of them are children. They are more susceptible to health risks when exposed to the toxic materials of e-waste because they have immature metabolic pathways which would weaken the detoxification of these hazardous substances and could develop into chronic diseases later in life [5]. Sadly, the transcontinental dumping of e-waste has been recognized with global treaties like the Basel Convention, but loopholes nonetheless exist on which endanger the population in the low-income nation-states [5]. For example, 70% of electronic imports sent to Ghana in 2009 were claimed to be second-hand, however, most of the equipment was identified as e-waste because they could not be reused. [4]

These examples show that high-income developed nations are partly responsible for the rise of environmental racism. In these countries, corporations and private owners generate profits from enormous amounts of consumption without giving a thought or being interested in how these profits are made [5]. Another point of this discussion is e-waste. Technological advancements make consumers happy on the one hand but contribute to e-waste on the other hand. They can harm human health and the environment. And those who profit do not suffer the adverse effects of e-waste [5]. It then becomes apparent for these companies to export hazardous and unwanted waste to the weakest spots of society geographically (location), socially(strata) and in terms of political power (disenfranchised or politically marginalized groups) [5].

It can be observed that the environmental justice movement tends to side with the poor, and marginalized communities that are subject to ecological dangers – compared to the interests of corporations with strong economic intent [5]. Environmental justice represents a powerful framework that can be used in low-income developing countries to fight environmental racism [5].


  1. É. Laurent. (2011) Issues in environmental justice within the European Union, Ecological Economics, Volume 70, Issue 11, Pages 1846-1853.
  1. Food Empowerment Project. (n.d.) Environmental Racism. [online] Items. Retrieved from https://foodispower.org/environmental-and-global/environmental-racism/.
  1. Goldman Environmental Foundation. (2019). The Goldman Environmental. [online] Available at: https://www.goldmanprize.org/.
  1. Learning, Lumen. (n.d.). Sociology. [online] Retrieved from https://courses.lumenlearning.com/alamo-sociology/chapter/reading-environmental-racism/.
  1. London, I.K. Joshi, E. Cairncross, J. Gilmore, L. Claudio. (2019) Environmental Justice: An International Perspective☆, Encyclopedia of Environmental Health (Second Edition), Elsevier, Pages 553-560.
  1. Sze, J., Lazrus, H., Henderson, J., Demuth, J., Mitchell, P., Edick, C. and Desch, M. (2006). Toxic Soup Redux: Why Environmental Racism and Environmental Justice Matter after Katrina. [online] Retrieved from https://items.ssrc.org/understanding-katrina/toxic-soup-redux-why-environmental-racism-and-environmental-justice-matter-after-katrina/.
  1. The Lancet Planetary Health (LPH). (2018). Environmental racism: time to tackle social injustice. [online] Retrieved from https://www.thelancet.com/action/showPdf?pii=S2542-5196%2818%2930219-5.
  1. UNEP – UN Environment Programme. (2019). UN report: Time to seize opportunity, tackle challenge of e-waste. [online] Retrieved from https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/press-release/un-report-time-seize-opportunity-tackle-challenge-e-waste.


Yvonne Ndinda Mutua has joined ANSA as a member this year. She is a Kenyan citizen and studies in Cottbus at the Brandenburg University of Technology since 2017. Before she studied in Shanghai from 2010 until 2015. As a result, she has gained various experiences in Environmental Studies. One interesting fact about her is that she has a huge fear of Chameleons!