The connection between the environment and racism

Updated: Jun 21

Something big is happening in our world right now. We're experiencing a powerful and much needed uprise in the fight against racism, specifically against black people in America and around the world. This is a more than important topic to talk about on its own, but did you know it's also related to environmentalism?

Before I continue, I want to mention that I'm a white woman with the privileges that go along with that (see some of those privileges HERE). My goal here is to use this platform to share information with you that I've learned about this topic so far and try to contribute to the fight against racism. Yes, I'm going to connect the topic of racism with environmentalism, but these topics are both individually critical to the wellbeing of our world and both deserve our attention and action. If you're interested in learning more about the past and present of racism in America before you continue, you may find THIS (The History of Racism in America by the Smithsonian) and THIS (Systemic Racism explained) helpful. I’ve gotten much of my information about this topic from black environmentalists and educators, so I’ll be sharing their info below if you’re interested in checking them out and supporting their work.

Now, let's get started by talking about 'environmental racism'. “Environmental racism refers to the way in which minority group neighbourhoods (populated primarily by people of color and members of low socioeconomic groups) are burdened with a disproportionate number of hazards, including toxic waste facilities, garbage dumps, and other sources of environmental pollution and foul odours that lower the quality of life." (Lumen Learning). Real-life injustices of environmental racism are happening right now in America and all over the world. To mention a few:

- African Americans are exposed to 38 percent more polluted air than Caucasian Americans, and they are 75 percent more likely to live in fence-line communities than the average American. Fence-line communities are communities that are next to a company, industrial, or service facility and are directly affected in some way by the facility’s operation (e.g. noise, odor, traffic, and chemical emissions). (NAACP & CATF, 2017)

- According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Approximately 13.4 percent of African American children have asthma, compared to 7.3 percent for white children. The death rate for African American children with asthma is one per 1 million, while for white children it is one per 10 million". Not only does that affect the health of the children, but it can cost them and/or their families money, mental and physical energy, and missed school or work days.

- “African American children are five times more likely to have lead poisoning (the leading environmental health threat for children) than their Caucasian counterparts” (Bullard et al. 2007).

Not only are African American communities more likely to be exposed to environmental hazards like air pollution, they’re also less likely to have the necessary resources to address the associated health problems. As a result of the cycle of systemic racism, poverty rates among black communities in America are higher than in white communities (20.8% vs. 8.1% respectively in 2018 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2018)) and unemployment rates are negatively affected too (6.6% vs. 3.6% respectively in Q1 2020 (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2020). Money and stable employment are critical factors for good health insurance in America and many other countries in the world, leaving these communities disadvantaged in that aspect too.

But the inequality doesn’t stop there. "People who are already vulnerable, including lower-income and other marginalized communities, have lower capacity to prepare for and cope with extreme weather and climate-related events and are expected to experience greater impacts." (The National Climate Assessment, 2018). Dealing with the event and aftermath of a hurricane, flood or fire is a tragic challenge in itself. Now imagine doing it with a low income and a child with asthma.

As if all of these challenges and inequalities weren’t enough (and I’m only scratching the surface here), black people are also having to spend their time and energy defending their basic rights. Protesting in the streets, explaining their struggles to white people, worrying for their safety- this is time and energy that could be spent on other things. Things that they actually want to be doing. There are also many black environmentalists who want to be using their time, energy and talents fighting the climate crisis, but whose efforts are being distracted by their fight for direct safety being threatened by racism (see THIS article for more info).

So, as you can see, the climate crisis and racism are most definitely interconnected. They both threaten human lives, safety and rights. They both threaten the wellbeing and happiness of the planet and its inhabitants. And I believe that we can fight against both. There are strong, respectable and hard-working people of all colours and backgrounds in this world… but we don’t all have the same privileges and opportunities. So if you do find yourself in a position of privilege, consider using it for good and become an ally in the fights against climate change AND against racism. Read about them, watch documentaries, take courses, share info, support eco-friendly and black-owned business. Just do something. The world needs you.

Other great articles:

Why Every Environmentalist Should Be Anti-Racist by Leah Thomas (Vogue)

Read Up on the Links Between Racism and the Environment by Somini Sengutpa (The New York Times)

#environmentalracism #intersectionalenvironmentalism