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Environmental Racism: Another Inconvenient Truth

Most Americans are coming to terms with the environmental peril facing our planet. Documentaries, books, media attention and scientific research are raising consciousness to this very important issue. For this we should all be grateful. However, there exists an inconvenient truth within the present environmental movement. The greatest levels of environmental derogation exist where people of color live.

Within the United States, white America has routinely and historically dumped its toxic waste in neighborhoods of color. This link between pollution and the racial composition of neighborhood is called “environmental racism.”

Race remains the most significant factor in determining where commercial, industrial and military hazardous waste will be located. The empirical evidence reveals a consistent relationship between waste sites and the racial or ethnic compositions of those living in or near those sites.

Three of every five African-Americans or Hispanics lives in an environment polluted by toxic waste, while half of all Asian- and Native Americans live in communities with uncontrolled waste sites.

For example, African-Americans and Latino/as represent the majority of the four million children in the U.S. suffering from lead poising, with African-American cases running two to three times higher than their white counterparts.

It is fine and good that white environmentalists are concerned about cleaning up the environment, but it appears that a parochial emphasis exists. A comprehensive study conducted by the National Law Journal revealed that violators of pollution laws received less stringent punishments when violations occurred in non-white neighborhoods than when they occurred in white neighborhoods. Fines were 500 percent higher in white communities than in marginalized communities.

The message is clear: if you are going to degrade the environment, do it in neighborhoods of color, not in white suburbia.

The conversation not occurring within the environmental discourse is the interconnection between the exploitation of the world’s marginalized and the exploitation of the world’s resources. The logic used to justify both forms of oppression is the same.

Because few white environmentalists seriously consider this link, they consequently fail to understand a major reason why pollution disproportionately occurs in certain areas. This can be conveniently ignored, because the privileged do not have to live in toxic-infested neighborhoods.

Many environmentalists may be concerned with saving the planet but not necessarily the communities of color. The failure of white environmentalists to come to terms with how racism and ethnic discrimination relegate the disenfranchised to areas with the greatest concentration of ecological risks prevents any truly holistic approach to the present crisis facing our planet.

Failure to include environmental racism in our equations dooms any hope of success.

Miguel A. De La Torre is director of the Justice & Peace Institute and associate professor of social ethics at Iliff School of Theology in Denver.