The History Of Environmental Racism Black man holding a protest sign reading "Liberty & Justice for ALL"

The History Of Environmental Racism


June has been a month focused on inequality. A massive movement sparked by the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota has stretched even beyond the United States into other countries where racism still plays a role in society. This week, I want to share how environmental racism has affected millions of lives over the past century and a half and provide both examples of progress and ideas for moving forward.

Environmental Racism In The Past

Race and environmentalism have been uniquely intertwined since the beginning of the conservationist movement that started near the turn of the 20th century. After the Civil War, the US government had promised land to newly freed blacks, but this land and land provided to Native Americans was taken to create national parks and monuments instead.

The Founding Fathers Of Conservation

It wasn’t just the government who discriminated against people of color. Many founding fathers of conservation were white supremacists and racists who valued the lives of animals and even plants over the lives of persons of color.

Environmentalist John Muir felt a brotherhood with “animal people” but often commented on “dirty” Native Americans. Early conservation efforts pushed Native Americans off of their own lands so they could be enjoyed by white tourists instead.

Madison Grant, who founded the American Bison Society and played roles in creating Denali and Glacier National Parks, was a eugenicist and white supremacist. He published a book titled The Passing of the Great Race, or The Racial Basis of European History in 1916 warning of the decline of “Nordic” people to a rise in minorities.

President Theodore Roosevelt supported these environmentalists and even praised The Passing of the Great Race, calling it “a capital book; in purpose, in vision, in grasp of the facts our people most need to realize.” He took radical steps to protect land, but he did not do the same for black humans.

Mid-Century Racism

Over a decade before Rachel Carson’s iconic book, Silent Spring, William Vogt published Road to Survival (1948) which also warned about the dangers of pesticides and encouraged conservation efforts, but it also suggested eugenics and sterilization of the poor as solutions to overpopulation.

Waste Facilities

Landfills and other undesirable industry located predominantly in black neighborhoods. For example, a 1979 study on waste in Houston discovered “82 percent of all solid waste disposed in Houston from the 1930s to 1978 was dumped in mostly black neighborhoods – even though blacks made up only 25 percent of Houston’s population.”

In 1967, an 8 year old black girl drowned at the garbage dump next to her school. This event sparked riots at Texas Southern University, whose student population was mostly African Americans. The student protest escalated. A ricocheting bullet struck and killed an officer. Multiple protest leaders were arrested. This event was one of the first protests against environmental racism in America.

In 1979, residents of the Northwood Manor neighborhood in Houston, a mostly black neighborhood, formed the Northeast Community Action Group and filed a class action lawsuit against Southwestern Waste Management Corp (Bean v. Southwestern Waste Management Corp). They brought historical evidence of waste management companies siting landfills in black areas and claimed this new proposed landfill was a violation of civil rights. A judge ruled there was no discrimination.

The Sierra Club

The Sierra Club is an environmental organization started over 125 years ago by John Muir. The organization polled its members in 1972 asking if the organization should “concern itself with the conservation problems of such special groups as the urban poor and ethnic minorities.” Forty percent were strongly opposed while only fifteen percent were supportive of the idea.

John Tanton served at the Sierra Club’s national population committee chair in the seventies. In 1988, he wrote, “What will happen when [the white population] goes into minority status, and the groups that comprise the new coalition majorities don’t share the same [environmental] values?”

The Beginning Of The Environmental Justice Movement

The environmental justice movement did not start with companies or even the EPA realizing the ties between race and the environment. It grew out of community action which grew out of the civil rights movement. This new wave of activism for social and environmental reform began in the 1980s, and while some progress has been made since then, we have a long way to go.

In 1982, residents of Warren County, NC, protested against a hazardous waste facility by blocking the streets to prevent trucks carrying harmful PCBs from reaching the facility. Although this protest did not permanently stop the facility, it was one of the first events which launched the modern environmental justice movement.

The 1990s

Even after the movement began to gather steam, environmental organizations were a whitewash. In 1990, activists sent letters to these organizations “claiming that non-whites were less than two per cent of the combined seven hundred and forty-five employees of the Audubon Society, Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council (N.R.D.C.), and Friends of the Earth.”

In the early 1990s, the EPA created an internal Work Group on Environmental Equity, an Office of Environmental Equity, and an Environmental Equity Cluster after pressure from activists and academics.

Greenpeace released a report in 1990 showing the extent of the discrimination. Here are some key findings:

  • “The minority portion of the population in communities with existing incinerators is 89% higher than the national average
  • Communities where incinerators are proposed have minority populations 60% higher than the national average
  • Average income in communities with existing incinerators is 15% below the national average
  • Property values in communities with incinerators are 38% lower than the national average
  • Average property values in communities where incinerators are proposed are 35 % lower than the national average.”

Beyond African Americans

The environmental justice movement isn’t just about discrimination against African Americans. Native Americans and Latinos face similar discrimination when it comes to siting waste sites and industry, although to a lesser degree. The distribution of wealth, housing and real estate practices, and land use planning also put Latinos and Native Americans at a higher health and environmental risk than whites. For example, Native American reservations are not subject to state regulations, making them enticing places to set up waste sites which will be exempt from state environmental regulations.

Environmental Racism In the Present

You may have thought that we surely must have come a long way in the four decades since the beginning of the environmental justice movement, but you would be wrong. Environmental racism is alive and well, and there are plenty of studies to prove it.

Unchanging Numbers

Remember how less than 2% of environmental organizations were non-white? The numbers have slightly improved, but not much. The Green 2.0 initiative showed “only 12 percent of the leadership staff and less than 5 percent of NGO boards of directors are people of color. When it comes to general staffing for these organizations, less than 13 percent of those hired between 2010 and 2014 were people of color.” Rachel Langstone, an environmental consultant surveyed by Green 2.0, said the persons of color brought onto boards of directors were usually there as a token role.

A 2014 study found that non-whites only made up 11% of leadership positions in environmental organizations. For comparison, non-whites make up about 27% of the US population.

A 2018 EPA study found that, in 46 states, non-white residents are exposed to higher concentrations of particulate matter than white residents. In Indiana and Alabama, non-whites were exposed to up to twice the amount of pollutants. (In case you’re wondering about the other 4 states, they are Maryland, New Mexico, North Dakota, Virginia, and Washington.)

Compared to the average American:

  • “Black US residents are exposed to 1.54 times more fine particulate matter, a pollutant that contributes to haze and has been linked to heart and lung diseases.
  • Hispanic US residents are exposed to 1.2 times more fine particulate matter.
  • People below the poverty line were exposed to 1.35 times more fine particulate matter.”

But race, not class, is still the determining factor on how much pollution one can expect to be exposed to. This 2009 study shows how African American households with incomes between $50,000 and $60,000 were living in neighborhoods with higher pollution than white households, even when those white households were making less than $10,000. “Even when income is held constant, African American children are two to three times more likely than white children to suffer from lead poisoning.

Unrecognized Privilege

The link between race and environmentalism has a lot to do with privilege. Non-whites are more likely to have limited access to resources (green spaces, farmer’s markets, extra money to buy zero waste alternatives, etc.) and barriers from the banking and real estate industries prevent them from moving out of polluted areas.

Since at least the 1980s, low income communities have been labeled as “least likely to resist” new waste facilities. Part of this is due to housing. It is easier for homeowners to protest new developments than it is for renters. While almost three quarters of whites own their homes, only about 42% of African Americans do.

Here is a good explanation about why privilege can be hard to see taken from this article: “The reason privilege is such a potent source of unquestioned beliefs is that it is itself quite stealthy, at least to those who possess it, while it is almost always blatantly obvious to everyone else. This is the result of a psychological process called cognitive dissonance, whereby the brain essentially rewires itself so as to not perceive aspects of the world that present painful contradictions or challenge one’s sense of identity. In the context of privilege, this means that we structure our experience of the world so that our social advantages seem natural and/or deserved.”

My privilege as a white person sometimes makes it hard to see how difficult “going green” can be for other people because of the thinking that since I have the time and resources to put toward it, doesn’t everyone else? Why doesn’t everyone else “care” as much as I do? But it may not be a case of who cares about the environment the most. The modern environmental movement is mostly middle class whites because they are more likely to have the resources to be able to care about the environment instead of more basic things like putting food on the table.

In addition to a difference in resources, the way environmental organizations go about stirring up emotions does not connect as easily with people more likely to be of color. Those who are trapped in concrete inner cities who have never seen forests or mountains or real wildlife for themselves and those who live in rural areas who depend on nature to survive do not have the same appreciation for nature as suburban folk who take vacations to national parks to experience its majesty.

Recent Events And Progress

In the past few years, finally a handful of environmental organizations have amended their platforms to also include racial justice and environmental justice. The Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Earthjustice and more have begun to realize how race has been swept aside in the fight for a greener planet. In addition, new environmental organizations have sprung up like Outdoor Afro and Latino Outdoors to give voices and a community to POC environmentalists.

The NAACP also recognizes environmental justice as a major issue to fight for and created the Environmental and Climate Justice Program to address “the many practices that are harming communities nationwide and worldwide and the policies needed to rectify these impacts and advance a society that fosters sustainable, cooperative, regenerative communities that uphold all rights for all people in harmony with the earth.”

The Black Lives Matter movement has also added environmental justice as one of their top issues on their #WhatMatters2020 campaign.

In more recent news, the role of pollution in minority neighborhoods has created an imbalance in the number of people contracting COVID-19 and dying from the virus. Air pollution causes respiratory problems which make fighting COVID-19 harder. A study from Harvard released in April stated that even small increases in the amount of fine particulate matter leads to an 8% increase in COVID-19 deaths. We are seeing the life or death effects of environmental racism playing out in real time.

Combating Environmental Racism For A Better Future

So now that we know about the beginning of environmental racism and the problems minorities still face, what can we do to create environmental justice? Here’s a brief and incomplete list of ways we can lead our nation into an equitable future for all people.

  • Get the facts and spread them with others.
  • Organize within your community to address environmental racism.
  • Protest and make your voice heard, in person and online.
  • Vote for candidates and policies that advocate for environmental justice.
  • Attend local planning and/or zoning board meetings and speak up when something doesn’t sound fair.
  • Continue fighting in court for environmental justice.
  • LISTEN to other people’s stories, gain a better understanding of their struggles, and learn from them.

Now how about things on a larger scale? What must governments, businesses, and organizations do?

  • Address police brutality and mass incarceration.
  • Hire more minorities and let their voices be heard (not just token roles).
  • Include assessments of how new developments or policies may affect different communities before they are approved.
  • LISTEN to citizens’ concerns and work with them to find equitable solutions.
  • Strengthen existing legislation and pass new legislation regarding environmental policy and environmental racism.
  • Ensure environmental regulations are being followed and penalize those who are disregarding them.
  • Reject the idea of pushing environmental racism elsewhere. Do not allow hazardous facilities here just pack up and move abroad to harm other communities.
  • Utilize the EPA’s Resources for Creating Healthy, Sustainable, and Equitable Communities.


It’s clear we have a long way to go in this fight, but it’s uplifting to be seeing both enthusiasm and progress as we move forward in addressing these long-ingrained inequalities. Check out my other post on getting involved in environmentalism for more advice and resources.

If you want to read about some examples of environmental justice in your community, check out this page from the EPA where you can search by region and read about how the environmental justice movement has brought about real change.

The History Of Environmental Racism Black man holding a protest sign reading "Liberty & Justice for ALL"

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