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Environmental Racism: How it all Started

Kate Fraser - Teen Aspect - June 9th, 2022
McGregor/Getty Images, 2016

Environmental racism, coined by the environmental justice movement in the 1980s, can be defined as the ways in which minority-centric neighborhoods are disproportionately impacted by environmental laws, institutions, and regulations. Although this institutional issue underlies the very foundations on which our country was built, it was not publicly addressed until a series of protests in 1982 in correspondence with the growing environmental justice movement. In Southern states like Alabama, South Carolina, and North Carolina, harmful waste landfills were popping up in Black and low-income neighborhoods, leading to a series of protests against the United States Environmental Protection Agency which was founded by President Richard Nixon just 12 years prior. This paved the road for the growth of the American environmental justice movement; as the hazardous energy plants and landfills grew, so did the campaign.

While it is clear that minority populations suffer from dangerous exposure to harmful pollutants and chemicals in relatively extreme degrees, the reasoning behind this very correlation can be traced back to a policy that still impacts America to this day. Despite the end of segregation across America, White Americans still managed to stay separate from minority populations through redlining, the discriminatory practice that began during the Great Depression. With the President Franklin Delano Roosevelt introducing the lengthy New Deal, a multitude of housing policies pulled the high population of low-income Americans out of the existing housing crisis of the time. The National Housing Act of 1934 introduced low-interest rates for housing, facilitating the entry of thousands of families into homes. In response to concerns over the potential for these families to default on their mortgages, the Home Owners Loan Corporation created residential security maps, an inherently racist caste-like geographic separation of people superficially based on social class. The areas labeled with green represented the rich, while the areas labeled in red implied “dangerous neighborhoods.” These neighborhoods were home to immigrants, low-class White Americans, and Black Americans, with race standing out as the most significant determinant behind the classification of areas within a city with the HOLC maps. Because of this mapping system, Black Americans were ultimately unable to buy or refinance homes. The lack of resources available to these “red” areas led to the destruction of a safe standard of living for African Americans, all while White Americans flooded into newly established suburbs which purposely excluded Black people from living there through what can be called “covenants.”

National Archives and Records Administration, 1983

Fast forward to 1968, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. influenced the passage of the Fair Housing Act by Congress, legislation that “protects people from discrimination when they are renting or buying a home, getting a mortgage, seeking housing assistance, or engaging in other housing-related activities.” Yet, this program, which has been left unchanged for decades, has been ineffective due to policies that consistently perpetuate discrimination and segregation, as well as a lack of enforcement on behalf of the Department of Justice and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

While redlining continues to pull Black Americans under the poverty line and the reach of overpolicing, it also has severe impacts on the health of millions in America today. People of color are surrounded by numerous industrial plants, poor sewage and water filtration systems, and homes with toxic insulation and paint. It is not surprising that Black urban populations struggle with higher rates of heart disease, asthma, and cancer due to these inhumane living conditions. Beyond toxic materials, the notorious urban heat island effect goes hand-in-hand with redlining, with land surface temperatures existing about 36 degrees Fahrenheit warmer in historically redlined areas.

In addressing environmental racism, or any racism for that matter, we need to understand that it is not something that was left behind in the pre-Civil rights era. It has and will continue to impact minorities in America and will require both systemic legislation and a total reform of how we view environmental policy. A more recent example of environmental racism at play is the Flint, Michigan water crisis, which would become one of the most horrific instances of environmental discrimination in American history. After switching the city’s water source to the Flint River. The river was once a deposit for the many industrial factories that once boomed in the city, leading many residents to question whether the switch was safe. And these questions were completely justified, foreshadowing the grim standard of living in Flint for many Black and low-income residents. The Flint community was strangled with lead-related disease and death; yet the Michigan state government did little to help the largely Black populated city. The crisis worsened, flooding our televisions with empty speeches by performative politicians and images of children with missing teeth and hair. Many could not help but consider whether the demographics of the city influenced this poor response. The Michigan Civil Rights Commission determined that the crisis was “the result of systemic racism that was built into the foundation and growth of Flint.”

Yet, Flint is not the only example of an environmentally hazardous city with a high Black population. St. Gabriel, Louisiana is ridden with factories, along with numerous petrochemical facilities that have been linked to alarming cancer rates amongst the 63% Black population. The stretch between cities along the Mississippi has quite literally been nicknamed “Cancer Valley,” with the concentration of chemical plants being overwhelming in Black neighborhoods and communities.

And so, the connection is clear: the deep American history of physical and demographic segregation on the basis of race and even social class under the policy of redlining has left minorities with poor environmental standards and policies, leading to adverse health impacts that will continue to haunt low-income cities today. Yet, redlining is not a thing of the past. Modern redlining has taken the form of racial profiling via Internet service ads that have limited the opportunities of minorities in terms of education. This has been addressed by the Department of Justice via an initiative called the “Combatting Redlining Initiative,” which lays out the means to enforce fair housing, banking, and financial services for all Americans. And the progress does not stop here, with the Biden Administration committing to the Justice40 Initiative, the executive order that works to reform the overall environmental disinvestment in communities of color, a much-needed strategy to provide resources to neighborhoods that need environmental standards the most.

Amongst the repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic, public health and administration has never been so heavily focused on in the White House. Yet, we must expand beyond the lines of the pandemic, diabetes, heart disease, and other leading health threats to Americans; carcinogens, pollutants, and chemicals are overwhelmingly concentrated in communities of color, all of which can be traced back to the Great Depression and the New Deal almost ninety years ago.


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U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). (n.d.). Housing discrimination under the Fair Housing Act. Retrieved May 22, 2022, from

National Fair Housing Alliance. (2018, April 30). New report analyzes 50 years of the Fair Housing Act and calls for stronger enforcement of Fair Housing Laws. Retrieved May 22, 2022, from

Hoffman, J. S., Shandas, V., & Pendleton, N. (2020). The effects of historical housing policies on resident exposure to intra-urban heat: A study of 108 US urban areas. Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute, 8(1), 12.

Michigan Civil Rights Commission. (2017, February 17). The Flint Water Crisis: Systemic Racism Through the Lens of Flint. Flint, Michigan.

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Kelly, C. V., & Reta, M. (2021, November 8). Implementing Biden's Justice40 commitment to combat environmental racism. Retrieved May 23, 2022, from

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