Faculty Forum – Public Policy Posted on Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Environmental Racism, Black Lives, and the Struggle for Justice

Anthony Browne Professor and Chair of Africana and Puerto Rican/Latino Studies, Hunter College; PhD, Columbia University

This post appeared as part of a Roosevelt House Faculty Journal series on the New and Renewed Visions of Environmental Justice.


Over the past decade, activist groups have mobilized nationally around racial inequality in policing, immigration, education, and mass incarceration. But an issue that has garnered substantially less attention and perhaps impacts more Americans is environmental racism. Without directly addressing how environmental racism adversely affects Black and Latinx communities, America’s enduring racial and economic inequality will continue to widen.

Environmental racism refers to polices or practices that differentially affect or disadvantage (whether intended or unintended) individuals, groups, or communities based on race. Nationwide researchers have documented a pattern where people of color, and those with lower social and economic status, are most likely to live near sites of contamination — landfills, incinerators, refineries, chemical plants — and further away from clean water, air, and soil. Scholars have referred to this practice as a form of invisible violence that deprives communities of color access to healthy living environments.

Environmental health risk is distinctly shaped by America’s long history of race, class and geographic segregation. Racial inequality resulted in the formation of geographies of racism that relegated Blacks and other marginalized groups to inferior, polluted, and dangerous spaces, while often shielding their white counterparts. For instance, the percentage of African Americans and Latinx in the ‘fenceline zones’ — living closest to potential harm, with the least time to react in the event of a catastrophe — is respectively 75 percent and 60 percent greater than for the U.S. as a whole. These communities are routinely selected as dumping grounds for facilities that have negative environmental impacts — landfills, waste treatment plants, incinerators and industrial plants. An infamous example of this disparity is “Cancer Alley,” the 85-mile Louisiana stretch between Baton Rouge and New Orleans that is home to more than 150 industrial plants and refineries. The area earned the moniker due to the sheer number of cancer cases, inexplicable illnesses, and deaths that have afflicted residents for decades. This pattern is another sobering example that within the context of white supremacy, Black lives have been viewed by the larger society as disposable, and as such, the racial disparity among victims of environmental pollution is palpable.

Racial segregation is a major contributor to the creation and maintenance of environmental racism because governments and the private sector disproportionately locate toxic and hazardous facilities in neighborhoods that can exercise the least political power and that lack the social infrastructure to resist. Therefore, these communities routinely bear the brunt of environmental degradation and industrial pollution. Not surprisingly, African American and Latinx children suffer higher rates of lead poisoning, asthma, exposure to contaminated water, pesticides, and mercury than their white counterparts. Scientists maintain that there is well established evidence that children are far more susceptible to pollutants than adults, with potentially severe consequences for their development.

The recent tragedy of contaminated drinking water in Flint, Michigan is a salient reminder that all communities should have a right to equal protection under environmental and health laws. In Flint, state and local government apparently downplayed the public health threats in Black and Latinx communities which created a public health crisis as thousands of residents are now living with the effects of lead contamination. This failure also extends to the federal level since Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act  prohibits recipients of federal funds — such as state environmental agencies — from making decisions that have discriminatory impact. Environmental justice groups have consistently charged the EPA’s Office of Civil Rights with betraying its responsibility to protect those communities by failing to investigate complaints and sanction those who violate provisions of the Civil Rights Act.

The longstanding negligence of federal and local governments forced communities to engage in various forms of collective action to protect residents.  The origins of the contemporary environmental racism movement date back to 1982 in Warren County, North Carolina, where primarily Black residents resisted an effort by the state government to site soil laced with toxic PCBs in their community. Residents and their allies were outraged that state officials had dismissed concerns over PCBs leaching into drinking water supplies. They engaged in marches and other forms of nonviolent protest resulting in hundreds of arrest — the first arrests in U.S. history over the siting of a landfill.  Although they were unsuccessful, the campaign of resistance drew national media attention and served to galvanize what would later become part of a global movement against environmental injustice. Undoubtedly, communities of color have a rich history of opposition to environmental threats. Most recently, in the 1960s, Latinx farm workers fought for workplace rights including protection from harmful pesticides. In 1967, African Americans in Houston opposed a city garbage dump where a child drowned.  In 1968, residents of Harlem fought unsuccessfully against the placing of a sewage treatment plant in their community. But the Warren County protests marked the first instance of an environmental protest by people of color that garnered widespread national attention as a civil rights issue.

Not surprisingly, climate change adds another layer of vulnerability to communities that are already burdened.  The predicted adverse effects are expected to fall disproportionately on Black and Latinx communities as extreme weather events (e.g. heat waves, hurricanes, tornados, floods) increase in number and intensity and negatively impact public health (e.g. heat stress, injuries, food and water shortages, respiratory disease, soil and water contamination) over the coming decades.

Despite enormous resource challenges the environmental justice movement continues to be at the forefront of efforts to reduce exposure to environmental hazards, promote better public health and improve public safety. It is predicated on the principle that environmental protection is both a civil and human right, and that environmental harms and benefits should be fairly distributed among all communities. The movement’s intersectional focus takes into account the interplay of race, class, gender and ethnicity in the marginalization of communities and serves as a basis for building solidarity across multiple identities to resist systemic discrimination. Their efforts have swayed parts of the national regulatory policy by demanding that health and environmental impacts must be considered in policy decisions. Furthermore, movement leaders contend that in order to mitigate environmental racism regulatory policy should emphasize oversight, enforcement and accountability, as well as the input of participatory grassroots collectives in decision-making. Otherwise, environmental racism, which is part of a larger matrix of marginalization that also includes inequalities in policing, education, employment and housing policy, will continue to perpetuate racial inequality.


About the author:

Professor Browne is Chair of the Department of Africana and Puerto Rican/Latino Studies. He has taught at the university level since 1997 and joined the Department in 2001. He received his undergraduate degree from Cornell University and Master’s degree from UCLA. Trained as a sociologist, he earned a Ph.D. from Columbia University.

His research, scholarship and teaching concerns issues related to Black Diasporic communities with a focus on poverty, gentrification, Africana sociology, social movements and second generation immigrants. His most recent publications focused on the impact of the Great Recession on Black and Latino communities in New York City. Prof. Browne is currently completing a manuscript on the impact of gentrification in Central Brooklyn. He is the recipient of several grants and awards for his research including: the George M. Shuster faculty fellowship, several PSC-CUNY awards, and the CUNY Diversity Projects Development Fund. He is a Roosevelt House Faculty Associate, and a member of Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program and the Thomas Hunter Honors Program.

Prof. Browne is the former book review editor for the journal Wadabagei, and is currently vice-president of ATIRA Corp., a think tank focused on the African Diaspora. He has served as a consultant to several foundations and community based organizations around the issue of capacity building and neighborhood change. He is a longtime resident of the Bedford-Stuyvesant community in Brooklyn, New York.