How White Supremacy Perpetuated Environmental Hazards in Communities of Color

By Amira Iwuala, Jesse Fairbanks, and Priya Pandey

CLASP recognizes the important ways in which climate change impacts the people and policies we advocate for. This blog is the fourth in a series exploring the intersection of environmental justice and economic security for people living with low incomes. Explore the series here.

Communities of color are disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards. That’s because local governments overwhelmingly sited hazardous facilities in or near their communities after white, middle-class neighborhoods used their resources and political capital to reject these facilities being placed in their “backyards” several decades ago. Proximity to environmental hazards can lead to developmental disabilities in children; greater risk of cancer, heart, and lung disease, including asthma; as well as the loss of healthy outdoor space to spend time with family, friends, and community. The Black, Indigenous, and immigrant communities who shoulder the disproportionate burden of environmental hazards deserve restitution.

Source: “Local policies for environmental justice: a national scan”, February 2019.

The “not in my backyard” or NIMBY movement emerged in the 1970s to resist the placement of environmental hazards in suburbs across the United States. After decades of segregationist housing policies, real estate practices, and organized anti-Black violence, suburbs in America were mostly populated by white people who had exclusive access to federal homeownership programs. The source of the NIMBY movements’ political power was whiteness, which the suburbs both organized and preserved. Importantly, the NIMBY movement was also hyperlocal. Groups of white families living in the same suburb would criticize a proposal to site a hazardous facility nearby and demand the city planning office move it elsewhere.

After white, middle-class neighborhoods insulated themselves from environmental hazards, local planning officials relocated the facilities by proposing to site them in majority Black neighborhoods. Politicians were less responsive to the residents of these neighborhoods because of their race and economic status. Moreover, because federal programs in the 1950s had scattered Black communities that were once cohesive and unified, these neighborhoods were not as politically mobilized.

In response to white flight to the suburbs in the middle of the 20th century, Congress passed the Housing Act of 1949, which included funding for infrastructure projects in big and mid-sized cities across the country. These projects—referred to collectively as urban renewal—claimed to make cities a more desirable place to live. However, many of the projects just demolished Black neighborhoods and replaced them with segregated high-rises or unaffordable condominiums. Less than a decade later, city planning offices used federal funds to route highways and interstates through thousands of Black neighborhoods. These new construction projects displaced many Black and immigrant families, either forcing them into more cramped dwellings or isolating the residents who stayed. Today, Black homes and schools are more likely to be near major roadways and have an increased risk of being exposed to pollution.

In both cases, city planners failed to consult with the people who lived in neighborhoods they considered “slums” and acted with the interests of white suburbanites commuting to work. In fact, these neighborhoods were never “slums.” They were once thriving and vibrant social communities that had been subject to concentrated poverty and overcrowding because of persistent disinvestment and segregation. By displacing residents and isolating neighborhoods, urban renewal stripped Black people with low incomes of their social assets—their relationships, networks, and sense of belonging—that are so important when mobilizing to stand up to power. Black communities were denied the same collective voice and political influence afforded to families living in the white suburbs—the power to organize and provide community input on local land use decisions.

In other words, the same anti-Black housing and land use laws that made the all-white suburb possible and split up Black communities also empowered local planning and zoning boards to site environmental hazards near segregated neighborhoods with less political power. The same laws that entrenched segregation enabled another form of systemic racism—environmental racism—to intensify over the course of a single decade. Multiple cities’ decisions to force hazardous facilities into majority Black neighborhoods across the nation ignited what we now know as the environmental justice movement.

It’s been 40 years since the environmental justice movement’s most well-known protest in Warren County, NC. In 1982, hundreds of activists mobilized to stop the state government from dumping 6,000 truckloads of soil laced with toxic chemicals into a nearby landfill. Black residents worried that the landfill would contaminate the drinking water supply, and they were right. PCBs—the toxic chemical in that dumped soil—cause rashes, liver and kidney dysfunction, and developmental problems in children. Before Warren County, there were protests in Memphis, TN and Houston, TX. All these protests were led by Black, Latinx, Indigenous, or immigrant people who refused to shoulder the entire burden of environmental hazards produced by the county or state they called home.

Now, these communities deserve restitution.

Local, state, and federal governments must take responsibility for the exploitative practices that have demolished Black communities and made them vulnerable to health-damaging pollutants. And as with all policy solutions that claim to be restitutive, any program meant to relieve the long-term consequences of environmental racism should be driven and endorsed by the community. Lawmakers must include community engagement requirements in any legislation claiming to deliver environmental justice to ensure administrators work with directly impacted people throughout the policymaking process.