Up to the late 1960s, racism was defined as a doctrine, dogma, ideology, or set of beliefs. The central theme of this doctrine was that race determined culture. Some cultures were deemed superior to others; therefore, some races were superior and others inferior. During the 1960s the definition of racism was expanded to include the practices, attitudes, and beliefs that supported the notion of racial superiority and inferiority. Such beliefs and practices produced racial discrimination.
However, researchers argue that to limit the understanding of racism to prejudicial and discriminatory behavior misses important aspects of racism. Racism is also a system of advantages or privileges based on race. In the American context, many of the privileges and advantages available to whites stem directly from racial discrimination directed at people of color. Therefore, racism results not only from personal ideology and behavior, but also from the personal thoughts and actions that are supported by a system of cultural messages and institutional policies and practices. Racism is thus more fully understood if one sees it as the execution of prejudice and discrimination coupled with power, privilege, and institutional support. It is aided and maintained by legal, penal, educational, religious, and business institutions, to name a few.
Environmental racism is an important concept that provided a label for some of the environmental activism occurring in minority and low-income communities. In particular, it links racism with environmental actions, experiences, and outcomes. In the broadest sense, environmental racism and its corollary, environmental discrimination, is the process whereby environmental decisions, actions, and policies result in racial discrimination or the creation of racial advantages. It arises from the interaction of three factors: (1) prejudicial belief and behavior, (2) the personal and institutional power to enact policies and actions that reflect one's own prejudices, and (3) privilege, unfair advantages over others and the ability to promote one's group over another. Thus, the term environmental racism, or environmental discrimination, is used to describe racial disparities in a range of actions and processes, including but not limited to the (1) increased likelihood of being exposed to environmental hazards; (2) disproportionate negative impacts of environmental processes; (3) disproportionate negative impacts of environmental policies, for example, the differential rate of cleanup of environmental contaminants in communities composed of different racial groups; (4) deliberate targeting and siting of noxious facilities in particular communities; (5) environmental blackmail that arises when workers are coerced or forced to choose between hazardous jobs and environmental standards; (6) segregation of ethnic minority workers in dangerous and dirty jobs; (7) lack of access to or inadequate maintenance of environmental amenities such as parks and playgrounds; and (8) inequality in environmental services such as garbage removal and transportation.
During the 1980s people of color began organizing environmental campaigns to prevent the poisoning of farm workers with pesticides; lead poisoning in inner-city children; the siting of noxious facilities—landfills, polluting industrial complexes, and incinerators—in communities like Warren County, North Carolina; Altgeld Gardens (the "toxic doughnut" on Chicago's South-side); Convent, Louisiana's "cancer alley;" and Kettleman City, California. Activists also demanded the cleanup of communities like Triana, Alabama that had been contaminated with dichlorodiphenyl trichloroethane (DDT), and the monitoring or closure of facilities like Emelle, Alabama's commercial hazardous landfill (the largest of its kind in the United States). In addition, they questioned the placement of large numbers of nuclear waste dumps on Native-American reservations. Meanwhile, activists, scholars, and policymakers began investigating the link between race and exposure to environmental hazards. Two influential studies exploring this relationship—one by the U.S. General Accounting Office (USGAO) and the other by the United Church of Christ (UCC)—found that African-Americans and other people of color were more likely to live close to hazardous waste sites and facilities than whites. The study by the UCC was particularly important because it made an explicit connection between race and the increased likelihood of being exposed to hazardous wastes. The studies also made the issue of race and the environment more salient in communities of color.
In 1977 Sidney Howe, Director of the Human Environment Center, argued that the poor were exposed to more pollution than others, and that those creating the most pollution live in the least polluted places. He used the term environmental justice to describe the corrective measures needed to address this disparity. The term environmental racism came into popular use at a conference held at the University Michigan's School of Natural Resources in 1990. The conference, which focused on race and environmental hazards, brought together scholars and policymakers to discuss the relationship between racism and the environment. In addition, the term environmental equity movement was used in the late 1980s to describe the growing movement to address racial, gender, and class environmental inequalities. However, by the early 1990s the term justice replaced equity because environmental justice activists felt justice was a more inclusive term that incorporated the concepts of equality and impartiality. The movement focuses on two kinds of justice: (1) distributive justice, who bears what costs and benefits, and (2) corrective justice, concerned with the way individuals are treated during a social transaction. The environmental justice movement is concerned with distributive justice especially as it relates to identifying past racial injustices and advantages as well as the quest for future remedies. The movement is also concerned with corrective justice as it relates to corporate-worker–community relations and government–local community interactions.
SEE ALSO E NVIRONMENTAL J USTICE .
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Environmental Justice Resource Center. Available from http://ejrc.cau.edu .
Minority Environmental Leadership Development Initiative. Available from http://sitemaker.umich.edu/meldi .
Dorceta E. Taylor