• Brittany Evans

A History of Environmental Racism in the U.S.-The Basics

Environmental racism can be defined as how minority group neighborhoods (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 odors that lower their quality of life. Environmental racism exists due to the inability of minority and poor communities to access resources to fight against the polluting of their communities. Wealthier communities have access to more resources, funds, and the public eye to raise awareness for their cause, therefore driving the polluters towards minority and low socioeconomic communities.

Research completed by Robert Bullard shows that environmental racism has a profound effect on minority and low socioeconomic status communities by causing environmentally unsound housing, schools with asbestos problems, facilities, and playgrounds with lead paint. These factors can increase the surrounding resident's risk for cancer, birth defects, premature death, breathing conditions, and the list goes on. In 1982 Warren County, North Carolina was the starting point for nationwide protests to voice their concerns over environmental racism. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were widely used in paints, plastics, and adhesives, and as industrial coolants; these chemicals were known to have harmful effects on humans. After 30,000 gallons of toxic PCBs were dumped along the side of rural North Carolina roads, spanning across 14 counties and 211 miles, Governor Hunt proposed that the contaminated soil be dumped in a soybean field in Warren County.

In 2016 National Geographic completed a piece titled “Life Under The Waste Sprayer” which details the health and environmental hardships that the residents of Duplin County, North Carolina face. Devon Hall has co- founded Rural Empowerment Association for Community Health (REACH) to help bring attention to the disparities. Hall worked with researchers in the early 2000s to study the health effects of farm pollution. Studies found that families living near hog farms have higher rates of infant mortality, kidney disease and respiratory illness. And in Duplin County, it is people of color who are disproportionately harmed. Hall stated in a video from Corey Robinson that REACH is not directly attacking anyone, or trying to put anyone out of business. REACH wants contractors of Smithfields, or anyone in the livestock industry, to simply clean up their act. In the same video a prior contract grower for Flint River Mills- Swine stated that all he had done to clean up was pump the feces and urine into the ground, which he calls a “feces factory”. He realized one day that he disagreed with his own method. He felt that he could not bear the responsibility for creating environmental distress for neighboring residents. Afterwards he shut down his entire operation. He agrees with REACH that livestock needs to be farmed responsibly. A lifetime resident of Duplin County, René, has developed respiratory issues and cannot go outside without becoming hoarse, after an industrial swine farmer set up a spray field directly across from her home in the late 1990’s.

President George H.W. Bush established the first Environmental Protection Agency Office of Environmental Justice in 1992. President Bill Clinton furthered these protections by signing an executive order that required federal agencies to address environmental justice in minority populations and low-income populations in all of their policies. However, these efforts were not fully established because Congress never passed a bill to make the executive order law. Because of this, President George W. Bush was able to shift the focus of the Office of Environmental Justice from low-income and minority communities to all people leaving vulnerable populations without a federal advocate. While President Barack Obama recommitted to fighting for environmental justice, no firm legislation was passed. Under President Donald Trump’s administration, the EPA budget and regulations were rolled back. This ultimately leads to vulnerable communities falling through the cracks.

President Biden has vowed to make progress in the pursuit of environmental justice. President Biden recently signed an executive action creating a White House council on environmental justice and a pledge that 40% of the benefits from federal investments in clean energy and clean water would go to communities that bear disproportionate pollution. The EPA is a nationwide resource for communities struggling with environmental racism. The EPA offers grants, partnerships, and planning services to those in need.


Speaking Plainly:

  • Environmental racism is a nationwide crisis that has left many communities suffering long-term health disparities.

  • Government resources have not been used to their full extent to help ease environmental racism.

  • Wealthier communities generally have the resources to deter polluters from their neighborhoods, consequently driving them towards impoverished areas.

  • Rural Empowerment Association for Community Health (REACH) is a North Carolina based resource dedicated to empowering communities.

  • Federal resources include:

  • The EPA’s Environmental Justice Department and

  • The EPA’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council