Environmental Racism

One health issue that cuts across America’s minority communities is environ- mental racism. The term environmental racism refers to the disproportionate bur- den of environmental pollution experienced by ethnic minorities—from Hispanic farmworkers exposed to dangerous pesticides to Navajo communities poisoned by deadly uranium mines and inner-city African Americans plagued by asthma- inducing air pollution. Lead is the most important of these environmental hazards, because it is so wide- spread and devastating and found in polluted air, contaminated soil, and the paints and pipes of older residences. African American children are twice as likely as white children to have dangerous levels of lead in their blood. Similarly, a recent study found that Af- rican Americans and Hispanics living in California were six times more likely than whites to live in areas polluted by carbon monoxide, ozone, sulfur, pesticides, and other toxic substances—and found that ethnicity predicted exposure to environ- mental hazards better than did poverty.

Environmental racism is a consequence of “everyday” racism. Racial dis- crimination keeps members of minority groups in segregated communities and enables industrialists, with the tacit approval of government bureaucrats and pol- iticians, to place environmental hazards in those communities without worrying that residents will have the political power or financial resources to resist. Poverty and lack of other job opportunities can even encourage minority communities to welcome polluting industries for the jobs they will bring. This doesn’t mean, however, that those who make decisions about where to locate en- vironmental hazards intend to discriminate against minorities. Certainly those who make these decisions would argue that they decide solely on economic and tech- nical considerations. Nevertheless, their actions have the effect of discriminating.

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