What is Environmental Racism?

Environmental racism is real. If you’ve never heard the term, you aren’t alone. No, this phenomenon doesn’t suggest that nature itself is prejudiced against a particular race. Rather, practices that are detrimental to the planet have greater impacts on BIPOC than white people.

A goal of Black History Month is to highlight the achievements of African-Americans and their role in U.S. history. Hazel M. Johnson was a Black woman who deserves more acknowledgment in the fight for environmental justice. 

When your area needs a new landfill or waste treatment center, where does it get built? It isn’t near the “nice” neighborhoods where the higher-income residents live. Those who live in low-income areas (such as public housing) are statistically more likely to be non-white—they have to bear the additional burdens that come with living near garbage and toxic waste.

A landmark study in the 1980s uncovered that “three out of every five Black and Hispanic Americans lived in communities with uncontrolled toxic waste sites." The likelihood of this being a coincidence was “virtually impossible.”  

Hazel M. Johnson is known as the mother of the “environmental justice” movement. She recognized that environmental racism isn’t just a problem because of weird smells and extra trash. She helped uncover its impacts on public health.

Hazel lived in Altgeld Gardens, which is a public housing project on the southeast side of Chicago. Considering her husband’s early death from lung cancer in 1969, Hazel noticed a pattern. People in neighborhoods like Altgeld were far more likely to die from cancer than those who were living in higher-income areas. 

Hazel described her region as a “toxic doughnut.” There weren’t sprinkles and icing—there were environmental threats like landfills, sewage treatment plants and leaking underground storage tanks. In fact, Altgeld was built on top of a former Pullman Palace Car Company dump and was teeming with asbestos. Through research, she realized that these early fatalities were linked to their poor environmental conditions.

Through the organization People for Community Recovery (PCR), Hazel worked to stop new landfills and incinerators from being created in low-income communities across the country. Her efforts improved the environment as well as public health. 

Protest Photo by Markus Spiske from Pexels

The fight against environmental racism is far from over. The NAACP’s Environmental and Climate Justice Program recognizes that environmental hazards still have a disproportionately large impact on communities of color. Former President Trump’s administration even rolled back legislation that protected non-white communities from carcinogenic pollution. 

President Biden signed an order to make “environmental justice a part of the mission of every agency.” While this is a great first step, actions speak louder than executive orders. In 1995, Hazel told the Chicago Tribune that “every day, I complain, protest and object, but it takes such vigilance and activism to keep legislators on their toes and government accountable to the people on environmental issues.” The United States grapples with racial inequities that are more than skin deep, but the fight for justice must continue.