Environmental Racism

We cannot talk about various sustainability, organic, or zero waste movements, without taking into account environmental racism. Environmental racism refers to:

“...any policy, practice, or directive that differentially affects or disadvantages (whether intended or unintended) individuals, groups, or communities based on race or color. It also includes exclusionary and restrictive practices that limit participation by people of color in decision-making boards, commissions, and regulatory bodies.” (Bullard 1993; 23)

To put it in different words, environmental racism occurs in communities that are typically in a low socio-economic area, and/or a community that has a majority of people of colour inhabiting it. It is a part of institutional racism. Additionally, environmental racism "....combines with public policies and industry practices to provide benefits for whites while shifting costs to people of color." (Bullard 1993; 23) You may have heard the term environmental racism when discussing the Flint water crisis in the United States, or the drinking water advisories in Serpent River First Nation (or any of the other over 90 indigenous communities on boil water advisories) here in Canada. It's a term applied to violations that would not be occuring in either affluent and/or primarily white communities.

Image by Joe Brusky (at the Sacred Stone Camp)

Image by Joe Brusky (at the Sacred Stone Camp)

The response to environmental racism was the environmental justice movment, which "developed in response to mounting evidence that communities of color (and low-income communities) bear a disproportionate level of industry's adverse environmental impacts...[and] asserts that communities impacted by polluting facilities and contaminated sites should be able to participate as equal stakeholders in environmental regulation processes." (Fisher 2003; 206) The environmental justice movement was created by a black woman, Hazel M. Johnson, who talked about environmental justice before there was even a term for it. 

Hazel M. Johnson the "Mother of the Environmental Justice Movement." (Image from Surviving to Thriving)

Hazel M. Johnson the "Mother of the Environmental Justice Movement." (Image from Surviving to Thriving)


So what does this have to do with any discussions of various sustainability movements? All of these movements often fail  to take into account the amounts of massive privilege that come along with discussing these issues. 

For example, those that advocate for less toxins in our environment, or to use tap water over bottled water, or to keep communities free of garbage and litter, aren't taking account the neighbourhoods in which this kind of activism is possible. In communities that are victim to environmental racism, it isn't an easy fix of buying a water bottle, or installing an air filter in their home. It requires dismantling a racist system that has been in place for hundreds of years. "People of color around the world must contend with dirty air and drinking water, and the location of noxious facilities such as municipal landfills, incinerators, hazardous waste treatment storage and disposal facilities owned by private industry, government and even the military." (Bullard 2003; 50) These examples are institutionally applied and accepted forms of racism that are left out of discussions surrounding sustainability, zero waste, and organic movements. Emily Fisher states, "those with means will always find ways to mitigate their burdens at the expense of those without means. If this is the case, sustainable development is not only an oxymoron, but antithetical to environmental justice. Sustainable development will be a proxy for the ability of more affluent and empowered members of society to avoid their share of environmental burdens." (Fisher 2003; 205) So, how can we talk about one issue without addressing these deeply entrenched racist systems that continue to disproportionately put communities of colour in the hands of increased environmental risks? Is sustainable development really helping all communities, or just the privileged?

Image from socialist.ca

Image from socialist.ca

At a JSU Freedom Colloquium Panel at Jackson State University, Professor Robert Collin criticized what he termed "'eco fascism' in the environmental and sustainability movements. Colin suggested that the absence of community voices, particularly minority communities, in sustainable development will move us toward 'bioregionally based sustainability where it's greenfirelds for white and brownfields for browns unless the community comes in and grabs a say.' According to Collin, any definition of sustainability is not acceptable unless it includes 'issues of reparations for environmental injustices of the past." (Fisher 2003; 204) While this may seem like an extreme view of things to some, its not an innacurate statement. 

This all coincides with activists and environmentalists who want to make sure that communities make ethical and sustainable choices. This well intentioned activism actually preserves privilege, because "externalizing clean up and abatement costs onto either nature or minority and low income communities." The ownership is then off of the privileged communities and activists, and on to the people who are already facing a slew of other issues, all of which are connected to institutional racism. 

Going forward, I think it is crucial for sustainability and ethics bloggers (particularly white people), including myself, to discuss the intersectionality of the issues we are discussing. I'm not writing this from an ivory tower, or to shame people. I'm writing this because I believe that as a person with immense environmental and social privilege who blogs about ethics, I have to confront my complicity in the perpetuation of environmental racism. I have to confront it, because I'm directly privileged by it. This blog post has a serious tone to it, because it is serious. 

So, how do we begin to undo hundreds of years of institutional environmental racism? I think it starts with examining our language when discussing these issues. Am I perpetuating classist and elitist 'solutions'? The second way is to be inclusive to communities of color. This could mean ensuring that those directly affected are involved and hold leadership in your activist goals, or that you yourself become involved in environemental justice movements led by POC. In Canada, a lot of these leaders are indigenous groups, like Idle No More, who fight climate injustices. However, this does not mean that POC owe you their time to educate you. Historically, they have been the leaders of these movements and are often the ones on the front lines addressing environmental racism. As people with access to libraries and google, white people cannot expect POC to continue to provide emotional and intellectual labor when they've been telling us to get our shit together for years. It is up to the groups who are less affected by environmental racism to include it in all of our discussions surrounding sustainability. This includes identifying unjust structures that continue to enforce institutional racism, and regarding sustainability issues with deeper thought and investigation. Looking at environmental and social issues complexly allows for us to see the historical evolutions that have brought us to this point, and aids in making connections to see how many of these social inequities are connected. 

- Emilie Maine

(P.S. A person who discusses environmental and institutional racism a ton is Freweyni Adugna Asres (@zerowastehabesha) I'd go give her a follow.) 



Bullard, Robert D. (1993) The Threat of Environmental Racism. Natural Resources & Environment, Vol.7(3) 23-26, 55-56. 

Bullard, Robert D. (2003) Confronting Environmental Racism in the 21st Century. Race, Poverty & the Environment, Vol.10(1) 49-52. 

Fisher, Emily. (2003) Sustainable Development and Environmental Justice: Same Planet, Different Worlds? Environs Environmental Law and Policy Journal, Vol 26(2) 201-218.