Environmental movements have played an essential role in alerting the public about environmental degradation and pollution’s dangers to their health and the environment. Understanding that environmental problems can impact specific locations and people more is vital to addressing environmental concerns. The concept gained the people’s attention in the 1980s (Bell, 2014), with more people gaining awareness regarding the impact of environmental injustice on the people and the environment.
Environmental injustice refers to a three-dimensional nexus of unjust evidence of environmental quality, social justice, and economic justice, which overwhelmingly ensure that low-income communities and communities of color continue being oppressed on environmental matters (Bell, 2014). It means that these individuals continue being exposed to pollution, pollution’s concomitant effects on health and environment, and unequal environmental quality and environmental protection through regulations, policies, laws, enforcement, and governmental programs. The achievement of justice requires an understanding of the roots of environmental injustice. The paper examines aspects that drive environmental injustice.
Systemic racism in the US has contributed to excluding minority groups from decision-making processes focused on the environment. Commonly, Black and other minority groups are not included in environmental laws, which explains why there is unequal enforcement of these laws. Systemic racism has led to the discrimination of people of color in the US regarding environmental issues; mainly, the establishment of waste dumps (Cuesta, 1998). According to Cuesta (1998), data on the existence of waste dumps in the US reveal that most of them are found in black neighborhoods, despite blacks belonging to the minority population.
According to Borunda (2021), research on environmental justice began in the late 1970s after it was established that Texas had permitted the siting of a waste facility in a black-dominated neighborhood at the expense of a white neighborhood. The siting of the waste facility led to questions about systemic racism in the US, as blacks only constituted 25% of the population there, yet 14 of the 17 industrial waste sites were found in their neighborhood (Borunda, 2021). It showed how inherent systemic racism was, considering that blacks represented only a small population, yet they were subjected to numerous waste sites. Due to systemic racism, blacks are more likely to be subjected to harmful environmental infrastructure than whites. Therefore, systemic racism in the US has contributed to environmental injustice by encouraging the establishment of environmentally harmful infrastructure in black-dominated neighborhoods.
Systemic racism promotes the settlement of people of color and poor communities in areas associated with environmental health burdens, which cause health hazards. The disempowerment of people of color due to systemic racism has contributed to their settlement in neighborhoods with insufficient resources (Maantay, 2001; Cuesta, 1998). These individuals settle in neighborhoods with poor drainage and dilapidated houses due to their inability to afford wealthy neighborhoods. The disempowerment of the people exposes them to poverty and unjust suffering (Cuesta, 1998). For these people, it is a norm to be exposed to health hazards because they lack the structures to change their situations due to systemic racism. Also, systemic racism has led to disinvestment and unfair housing policies in black-dominated neighborhoods. Therefore, systemic racism has played a significant role in driving environmental injustice by encouraging the disempowerment of people of color.
The segregation of people of color and low-income communities is a significant driver of environmental injustice in the US. Over the years, these communities have faced alienation, which forces them to poverty (Cuesta, 1998). Historically, neighborhoods of color have been located in regions with low property values. Due to this, factories and industrial establishments in the neighborhoods were constructed cheaply. The segregation of these people has made them associated with mediocre things, such as cheap factories without proper waste disposal systems. Therefore, many of these neighborhoods have been exposed to greater pollution levels, which have made them more vulnerable to diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and asthma.
The segregation of black communities has enhanced the notion that the neighborhoods where they live are hazardous, which qualifies them to establish toxic facilities. Due to the segregation of black communities, they have been forced to reside in congested neighborhoods (Bell, 2014). Due to insufficient green space and numerous housing projects, extreme heat waves characterize these neighborhoods. In most redlined neighborhoods occupied mainly by people of color, the temperatures are slightly higher. Tragically, people’s exposure to pollution and high heat levels is linked to pregnancy complications, such as premature birth, stillbirth, and low birth rate. (Bell, 2014) These numerous and dangerous environmental circumstances pose serious health threats to people of color across the US. They are symptoms of unjust, racist systems that encourage the segregation of the most vulnerable people in the US.
Segregation of people of color has promoted environmental injustice through people of color’s denial of access to public amenities to ease urban tension. Historically, people of color were denied access to numerous public amenities in the country to help ease urban tension, as most urban spaces were horrifically configured (Milman, 2021). It meant that people of color were barred from accessing these public spaces despite their essential role in providing an outlet for relaxation, recreation, and physical activity. In most cases, these public spaces were developed in white-majority neighborhoods. Today, the country still has most of its public spaces in white-dominated neighborhoods, which suggests that a history of racial segregation has promoted environmental injustice.
Majority-White Political Institutions
The whiteness of the US’s political institutions is a significant contributor to environmental injustice. Due to this whiteness, it has been a challenge to represent all groups. Most political institutions, such as the US Congress and the US Supreme Court, constitute whites as majorities (Lester, Allen, & Hill, 2001). It means that in most cases, their policies are focused on the interests of the majority population, whites. The issues facing minority communities lack proper coverage due to inadequate representation. In recent years, the whiteness of the country’s top leadership led to the weakening of environmental rules and regulations. For instance, President Donald Trump’s administration failed to sufficiently enforce the Safe Drinking Water Act, a demonstration of weakened regulations (Milman, 2021). The weakening of these regulations severely affected minority communities because they reside in the country’s poor regions.
Another weakening of regulations due to the whiteness of the country’s political institutions was demonstrated by the deregulation of petroleum refineries, reduced funding of disaster relief, and the refusal to ban the use of chlorpyrifos, a brain-damaging pesticide. Notably, the Trump administration’s deregulation of petroleum refineries exposed communities of color to health hazards (Milman, 2021), as they reside in counties with the highest number of refineries, which emit toxic substances capable of causing cancer. The inability of Trump’s administration to pass policies focused on addressing pollution and climate change demonstrated the role played by majority-white political institutions in enhancing environmental injustice.
In conclusion, systemic racism, segregation, and majority-white political institutions have driven environmental injustice in the US. Systemic racism in the US has contributed to excluding minority groups from decision-making processes focused on the environment. People of color have been subjected to environmentally harmful infrastructure compared to whites, such as establishing waste sites in black neighborhoods. Systemic racism has promoted the settlement of people of color and poor communities in areas associated with environmental health burdens, which cause health hazards. Also, people of color have been victims of segregation. Over the years, these communities have faced alienation, which forces them to poverty. Historically, neighborhoods of color have been located in regions with low property values. Due to this, factories and industrial establishments in the neighborhoods were constructed cheaply. The segregation of black communities has enhanced the notion that the neighborhoods where they live are hazardous, which qualifies them to establish toxic facilities. Segregation of people of color has promoted environmental injustice through people of color’s denial of access to public amenities to ease urban tension. Also, the whiteness of the US’s political institutions has led to the focusing of policies on the interests of the majority population, with people of color lacking adequate representation. It has also contributed to the weakening of various regulations, which leaves people of color exposed to health hazards. Therefore, race has played a significant role in determining environmental injustice factors.
Bell, K. (2014). Achieving environmental justice: A cross-sectional analysis. Oxford University Press.
Borunda, A. (2021). The origins of environmental justice—and why it’s finally getting the attention it deserves. National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/environmental-justice-origins-why-finally-getting-the-attention-it-deserves
Cuesta, C. D. E. (1998). Environmental injustices, political struggles: Race, class, and the environment. Durham: Duke University Press.
Lester, J. P., Allen, D. W., & Hill, K. M. (2001). Environmental injustice in the United States: Myths and realities. Boulder, Colo: Westview Press.
Maantay, J. (2001). Mapping environmental injustices: Pitfalls and potential of geographic information systems in assessing environmental health and equity. Environmental Health Perspectives, 110(2), 161-171. https://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/doi/pdf/10.1289/ehp.02110s2161
Milman, O. (2021). Exclusive: EPA reverses Trump stance in push to tackle environmental racism. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/apr/07/exclusive-epa-environmental-racism-justice