Black Lives Matter, Environmental Racism and Climate Injustice: What They Have in Common and What You Can Do to Help

Civil rights march

Dismantling the white supremacist foundation underpinning all three of these movements will take everyone working together. Get involved undoing the harms ravaging your local community using these 3 tips. 

Featured image: Civil rights march on Washington, D.C. Film negative by photographer Warren K. Leffler, 1963. From the U.S. News & World Report Collection. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division. Photograph shows a procession of African Americans carrying signs for equal rights, integrated schools, decent housing, and an end to bias. https://www.loc.gov/item/2003654393/ShareInfo


By Jeanne Yacoubou, MS

The Black Lives Matter protests happening all over the world right now, brought on by the murder of African American George Floyd in Minneapolis, reveal — yet again — the systemic racism deeply embedded in the history, culture and institutions of the United States. Environmental racism and climate injustice are two forms of systemic racism that have received very little attention in the media. 

What Is Environmental Racism?

Environmental racism is the term to describe the disproportionate prevalence of pollution from:

in and around communities where people of color (POC) — predominately African Americans, Hispanic Americans and Native Americans — live and work. Often, these groups live in or adjacent to areas zoned for industry because that’s all they can afford. Many subsist at or below the poverty level.

Alternatively, some POC are Latinx migrant workers and their families who live in agricultural areas where pesticides and synthetic fertilizers are heavily applied to fields. 

Whether in city or rural areas, POC residents are constantly exposed to air pollutants, some of which eventually settles on the land, contaminating it as well. Chemicals leaching into drinking water systems rendering it toxic is also common. 

What Is Climate Injustice?

Climate injustice refers to cases where POC or Indigenous communities have suffered catastrophes — like floods or wildfires — that are intensified by climate change, but receive little or no help from government and/or organizations whose stated purpose is to help people in need. 

Often, these communities are situated in high-risk areas such as those at or close to sea level or in deserts prone to drought.

Indigenous peoples living in their homeland away from modern society are at risk of losing everything when deforestation destroys their native lands or when crude oil pipelines are built through their communities. Many are murdered every year because their work protecting their native lands threatens the elite, and often white, power structure. Usually the Indigenous activists are standing in the way of “land grabs” often conducted by domestic or international corporations or private investors in conjunction with their countries’ governments. But these facts stay under the mainstream radar to protect the status quo all in the name of profit. 

Why Are Environmental Racism and Climate Injustice So Under-Reported in the Mainstream Media?

Often, people in communities affected by pollution, hazardous waste or climate change organize and try to force companies or governments to clean up the pollution, restore their environment and pay for damages. At the very least, they seek payment of medical bills and coverage for future healthcare costs in the case of birth defects or permanent disability. They may seek royalties from the fossil fuel found below their property, or restitution for contaminated water, air or land.

To prove their point these residents may engage in a variety of strategic tactics including: 

  • stage protests 
  • attend court hearings 
  • file lawsuits
  • circulate petitions
  • boycott 

as ways to create positive change or structural reform in and for their communities.

However, their efforts get very little media attention, shielded from view by the general public, just as POC and Indigenous people have been marginalized or denigrated for centuries.

There are likely two reasons for this.

  1. A society in which white supremacy determines the power structure doesn’t care to see or know about these environmental hardships and climate injustices since POC and Indigenous peoples are of lesser value than those who hold power (according to white supremacists who control the media outlets and government). In countries without white people, a small group of people belonging to the upper elite class hold the power. I refer to them as elitists in this article.
  2.  Just as the Earth has been exploited to enrich a small group of white people, ignoring environmental racism and climate injustice is aligned with the white supremacist or elitist narrative of gaining wealth and power no matter who is maltreated, impoverished or poisoned in the process. 

In other words, people of color and Indigenous people are often pawns or disposable annoyances in a society ruled by white supremacists or elitists at the heads of government or international corporations.  

Or, they exist apart from and unseen by white people of higher socioeconomic status than they. These whites enjoy “white privilege” although they may not openly express their racism or even be aware of possessing an implicit racial bias. 

Tragically, POC or the Indigenous of a given country suffer the negative effects of pollution or climate change in the form of serious health conditions and destroyed livelihoods. Meanwhile, wealthy, white company CEOs or the country’s premier government officials live in faraway, comparatively less polluted places at lower-risk of climate crises, and remain healthy. 

The supremacists also profit off of the pollution because they do not share the wealth with those affected by their polluting or destructive practices. This aspect of white privilege can be called the pollution and the climate advantage.

Now, there is quantitative data to support this notion. A recent study, for example, showed that POC are exposed to 56% more air pollution than is created through the manufacture and transport of products they actually use. For Latinx, it’s 63% higher

By contrast, whites live with 17% less pollution than they cause through the production of all goods they consume and services they use (like private jets)

Not surprisingly, the stark parallel between environmental racism and climate injustice becomes apparent: The excess consumption associated with affluence — the top 10%  — leads not only to more pollution and but also to greater carbon emissions, both of which contribute to climate change. However, the rich and powerful are relatively insulated from all of the negative consequences (i.e., pollution + climate change) of their extravagant, capitalistic lifestyle. 

Meanwhile, poor people in underprivileged nations and in disadvantaged communities in the U.S., who consume fewer resources and thereby produce fewer carbon emissions, bear the most extreme effects of climate change. This scenario is expected to get worse as climate change intensifies.

Here’s an infographic by Oxfam which classically illustrates this fact on a global scale:

Global income deciles, environmental racism

Expanded and graphic coverage in the media of the environmental and climate change plights of people of color and Indigenous peoples in the U.S. and in other countries could create outrage among other movements and groups (including whites), leading to unification and massive public protests. The common root of white supremacy or affluent elitism, supported by capitalism, will become more evident as information surfaces and awareness grows.

Eventually, this state of affairs would weaken the status quo of the affluent, now comfortably in their positions of power. If this occurs, they would experience intense public pressure to stop polluting and clean up their waste, both of which would reduce their wealth. They’re not inclined to take these steps.

Similarly, pressure to divest from fossil fuels and stop burning them (only 100 companies produce 70% of all carbon emissions as the infographic below reveals) would also ramp up. Doing so would severely cut into their profit margin, at least in the short term, until the transition to renewable energy is complete. 

world map of emissions and environmental racism

Currently in the United States, the Black Live Matter movement is revealing the numerous manifestations of systemic racism in the country, most ostensibly in policing.  

A growing number of people, including whites, are participating in the public protests. When environmental and climate activists recognize the common, white supremacist root of their movements with that of the racial justice movement, they hopefully will begin to work together through sustained and joint public protests. Then and only then can lasting, transformative social change occur.

Without public recognition of and apology for the racism they encounter daily, reparations and practical acceptance of racial equality in society, POC and Indigenous peoples know that the environmental racism they confront daily will persist unabatedly. There will continue to be death, disease and destruction in their communities.

Similarly, people of color and Indigenous peoples adversely affected by climate change will continue to encounter disaster after disaster until racial justice is achieved and the fossil fuel behemoth is dismantled.

Environmental Racism in the United States

Here are some recent examples of environmental racism in the United States:

#1 Cancer Alley (also known as Death Alley), Louisiana

In a place where cancer rates are 50% higher than the national average, local residents feel like they’ve been left to die among the toxic fumes from petroleum refining and plastic manufacture. 

Located in a strip of land along the Mississippi River, Cancer Alley also boasts the 5 U.S. zip codes with the greatest cancer risk in the nation. 

Water is contaminated as well. Two-thirds of the people there are African-American.

Recently, the state passed a law making it illegal to protest fossil fuels. If convicted, protesters are slapped with a heavy fine and prison sentence.

#2 Flint, Michigan 

In 2014, the lead contamination in the city’s water began in Flint, a town composed of mostly African Americans, when the government decided, as a cost-saving measure, to use the Flint River as a water source rather than Detroit’s public utility. 

This went on for 18 months.

It took 3 years for the evidence to surface that 15 government officials knew the water from Flint River was polluted by decades of industrial waste dumping. Criminal charges were filed against them for the lead issue and for an outbreak of Legionnaires’ Disease that sickened many and caused 12 deaths.

Even today, the town is still waiting for a permanent solution even though government officials claim the water is fine for drinking. Meanwhile, lead levels in Flint’s children are high. Even the Centers for Disease Control, a U.S. governmental agency, states that there is no acceptable blood level of lead, a neurotoxin that causes a host of permanent conditions including mental retardation and behavioral disorders. 

#3 Boyle Heights, Los Angeles, California

Located in the south part of Los Angeles, Boyle Heights is a neighborhood composed mostly of working-class and poor Latinos. It’s home to a now-shuttered Exide lead recycling plant that operated for decades and its pond of poisonous sludge. Along with other smoke-stacked industries not to mention heavy diesel truck traffic, Boyle Heights is highly contaminated with lead, arsenic and other toxic chemicals. 

The airborne contamination eventually settled into the land where it is only slowly being remediated — with Exide and governmental funds — 5 years after the plant’s closing.

A 2013 health risk assessment prepared by a private company for Exide, the lead company, showed that over a quarter of a million people in the area of Boyle Heights live with a chronic health hazard due to the wastes generated by the daily operations of the lead recycling plant. Unfortunately, no speedy end is in sight. 

#4 Mott Haven (also called Asthma Alley), New York City

Made up of 97% African Americans and Latinx, Mott Haven is a NYC neighborhood with some of the worst air pollution in the entire country. The rate of hospitalizations for asthma is 5 times the national average and 21 times that for other places in the City, especially in predominantly white neighborhoods.

The air quality is so poor for many reasons. The online grocer Fresh Direct has a warehouse in Mott Haven, responsible for hundreds of diesel trucks moving in and out for deliveries to upscale parts of NYC. The Wall Street Journal and the New York Post newspapers run printing presses there. A waste transfer plant, a FedEx depot and traffic from several major highways are close by, too.

#5 Standing Rock Reservation, North and South Dakota

When the fossil fuel company, Energy Transfer Partners, planned the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) route, they avoided white regions and went through Native American lands, specifically those of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

They knew whites would have more political clout and likely to object, based on ‘not in my backyard” (NIMBY) grounds. In effect, the fossil fuels company took advantage of racial disparities in the United States.

Even though the pipeline would go through sacred regions and, in the case of a spill or leak, contaminate the potable water for the Tribe members, the fossil fuel barons were granted permission by governmental authorities to start the flow of crude oil through the pipeline in 2017.

Unified protests, bringing in thousands of people of many races and several Native American groups together and staged for weeks on end, are certainly part of the reason why the company is still stymied. These self-described Water Protectors also included thousands of U.S. military veterans forming a human shield to protect the protesters from police.

Finally in March 2020, a judge called for an environmental impact statement, stating that a comprehensive EIS was never conducted prior to the project’s start but should have been. A decision is expected in Summer 2020 on whether the DAPL will be permitted to transport crude oil or not during the environmental impact statement process, slated for completion by mid-2021.

#6 Bears Ears National Monument, Utah

A coalition of 5 Native American groups – Hopi Nation, Zuni Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Indian Tribe and Ute Mountain Utes – came together, united, to work out the details (along with many federal agencies) of a 1.35 million-acre national monument that preserves their sacred grounds nestled among the magnificent red rocks of Utah. 

This effort was itself incredible given that the groups have historically been hostile toward each other.

Then-President Obama declared it a national monument in December 2016.

The following year, his successor decimated it by 85% of its original size for oil and gas drilling. 

Uranium mining and coal-fired power plants are also planned for the region often called the Four Corners.

Because of the significance and beauty of Bears Ears, many conservation groups and some large corporations, along with the Native Peoples, are intent on undoing the Trump decision.

Possibly the white privilege added to the mix may succeed to stave off destruction until, hopefully, a new U.S. president takes office in January 2021 and reverses the 85% reduction order. It is unfortunate that the Native Americans can’t accomplish it themselves. 

But, hopefully, one day, Bears Ears National Monument will permanently regain protected status along with another southern Utah monument held sacred by Indigenous people: 1.9 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, designated by then-President Clinton in 1996 and reduced in size three times by the current Administration.

Climate Injustice in the United States

Here are some examples of climate injustice in the United States:

#1 Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana

In 2005, a violent hurricane inundated New Orleans, Louisiana and surrounding areas. Then-President Bush insisted that relief would be equitably distributed.

The reality of the “recovery” was far from that.

It’s not an overstatement to say that African Americans were left to die.  

The media published a few photos of POC stranded on roofs while the water level continued to rise. There were no emergency evacuation plans except “private vehicles” which many residents were too poor to own anyway. 

But photos of bloated Black corpses floating along city streets were hidden from view.

The list of racial discrepancies in how relief and rescue were portioned out is too long to enumerate here.

I would like to point out that during the Katrina debacle, three hazardous waste sites in POC neighborhoods were flooded, contributing a toxic mess on top of free-flowing sewage all over the region.

Local POC had insisted publicly and repeatedly that officials should close down an underutilized canal described as a “shotgun” for storms, predicted to ravage POC communities.

White leaders didn’t listen. No one acted.

Katrina is probably the most glaring example of climate injustice compounded with environmental racism in the USA in recent times.

Recovery efforts continue today, as the 15th anniversary of Katrina approaches in August 2020.

#2 The Rockaways, New York City

This New York City neighborhood is located on a barrier island. The oceanfront part of it has been gentrified as affluent whites and corporations buy up properties and raise rents, displacing low-income POC to less desirable parts of the island. 

The Rockaways has a 60% African American and Hispanic American population situated in areas with limited access to hospitals, grocery stores and community services.

When Superstorm Sandy charged through the Rockaways in 2012, it left monumental damage and destruction in its wake.

Unfortunately, relief organizations and the police, missing in action, did not come rushing to help even the most vulnerable residents. 

So a 22-year-old African American named Milan Taylor, who had founded a local group called the Rockaway Youth Task Force the previous year to do community clean-ups and voter registration drives, took charge.

He organized hundreds of young POC and whites to distribute food and medicine to the locals, especially those who were elderly or disabled. Their relief and rescue efforts during the climate change-intensified storm and in its aftermath were indispensable to surviving it for many.

Ten years later the group is still going strong in an area highly susceptible to flooding and storm surges. With the flood and storm risk from climate change higher than ever, this ever-growing local group — now with young women of color leading many efforts — stands poised to help Rockaways residents whenever needed.  

What You Can Do to Dismantle Environmental Racism and Climate Injustice

Unfortunately, the examples given above are not isolated occurrences. They represent only the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to environmental racism and climate injustice in the United States.

Climate change is sure to produce many more faces of climate injustice in the coming months and years. It’s often POC who suffer the most in catastrophes due to fewer resources and no (or inadequate) health insurance.

No doubt, it is the faces of environmental racism and climate justice — of people paying the price of polluting industries without receiving any benefits from the misuse and abuse of the people’s “commons” like their water, air and land — that are missing from what little media coverage, if any, there is of these and similar stories of climate injustice and environmental racism in the United States.  

However, the sudden and continued Black Lives Matters protests around the nation will allow more faces of POC sustaining the environmental pollution, racism and climate injustice thrust on them by corporations that benefit while POC communities suffer. 

Feeling threatened also by the growing groundswell of support for cleaner energy and greener chemicals, the fossil fuel industries that are largely responsible for a lot of the environmental racism and climate injustice in the U.S., are doubling down and recruiting state governments’ help. Twelve states already have anti-protest laws enacted since 2016. There’s no doubt that the drive to pass these bills corresponds with growing climate activism and anti-fossil fuel sentiment in the general public. 

Incidentally, Mississippi, whose state flag has a confederate symbol on it, is slated to become the 13th state with an anti-fossil fuel protest law very soon. No surprises here.

These laws are also blatant examples of climate injustice.

In the face of all this, you as a concerned individual may feel helpless although you wish to help. Especially when large fossil fuel companies seek to pit white environmentalists against people of color. A recent example of this is Chevron claiming that Green New Deal projects espoused by whites would hurt Black communities by eliminating jobs. But this is a lie meant to divide.

Renewable energy, for instance, would decrease air and water pollution.

Millions of clean energy jobs would be created.

Fossil fuel companies know that when POC and the fragmented racial, environmental and climate justice movements are separate from each other and hidden from whites who would otherwise be willing to help, they’ll lack strength to dismantle racism, including the environmental racism and climate injustice that the POC are subjected to.

This division must be overcome by those seeking racial justice and those working for environmental justice or climate justice. As these three movements realize their commonality and push harder against fossil fuels and white supremacy (the common enemies), they — and, by default, all of us — will win a cleaner, more habitable world. 

If unified, there is no limit to their power and what they can do together, just like the 5 Native American groups, historically at odds with each other, surprised themselves by discovering when drawing up plans for Bears Ears National Monument as described above.

So, anyone wanting to dismantle environmental racism or climate injustice can find hope in the unification of diverse people that will drive change. 

So, here are 3 ways that you — as an individual anxious for the change that’s undoubtedly coming — can help end environmental racism, climate injustice and racism. 

#1 Connect with Like-Minded People

Connect with like-minded people in your area by joining a mainstream environmental group, an environmental justice group or a climate justice group. If already in a mainstream group, create an environmental justice or climate justice branch of your organization if it doesn’t already exist.

If you’ve read this far in my article, you are obviously very concerned about environmental racism or climate justice. You may self-describe as an environmentalist. If you don’t already belong to an environmental group, find one in your area and join. 

Clean Water Action or Sierra Club are just two well-known examples that you’ve probably heard of. There are many more some of which are devoted exclusively to environmental or climate justice. For example, WE ACT for Environmental Justice. The key point is to stay local and get involved. Offer to help on environmental racism or climate justice issues or initiate efforts dealing with them.

Then, work within your organization to create an environmental or climate justice branch (if it’s not a group exclusively devoted to environmental or climate justice already). Step up to lead it.

Educate yourself about the environmental racism or climate injustice in your area. Reach out to the affected people to find out more. Determine what steps they’ve taken to remedy their situation. Connect them with local government offices or nonprofit groups who may be able to help them.

If you can, offer administrative support or transportation to meetings (at government offices, hospitals, legal clinics, etc.)

Speak with the local government agencies responsible for dealing with the issue along with people from the area harmed by the environmental pollution or climate crisis to determine the steps needed to take to solve the problem. Then follow through, enlisting the aid of local politicians, hospitals and community leaders. 

#2 Engage with Affected Communities

Engage with the community suffering from environmental racism or climate injustice in your area, and seek out POC willing to take leadership roles or join forces with those who already are.

The rationale behind this suggestion is to work directly with the affected community and boost the numbers of people willing to speak up for themselves to create change. Those citizens will feel  more comfortable working with their own neighbors in the beginning. There may be language or cultural issues to adapt to and work through as well that a citizen leader could facilitate better.

Then proceed to work together to solve the problem. This could involve conducting health interviews or surveys in conjunction with a local hospital or school. Or, if water or soil samples are requested by government officials, you could help perform the tests or coordinate the process. 

Another possibility is to find out the times when the public can comment on laws or policies that affect their environmental health, or attend public hearings. Drafting letters, collecting signatures, translating at meetings, or enlisting the aid of politicians or community leaders are some tasks you could perform along with the citizen leaders who volunteered to do so.

However, I must emphasize that you should not try to “tokenize” the people of color who you search out as volunteers for leadership roles in a shallow way for a journalistic photo session or a TV show. Seek them out as your equal partners in the pursuit of a common objective.

Although the environmental and the climate movements are criticized for being “too white,” remember that this is merely the media’s spin on it. 

The white privileged media are more comfortable elevating and praising the efforts of white-majority environmental groups that have received large contributions by their white members, even if these efforts are cosmetic (such as not using single-use straws), rather than “down-in-the-trenches” activism (like protesting the construction of more fracking wells or yet another plastics plant that manufactures those straws from the fracked fossil fuel).

The real environmental and climate justice movements are being led all over the world, in fact, by POC and Indigenous workhorses who relentlessly pursue their goal of a clean environment for their very survival, or struggle to a preserve an ecosystem (like the Amazon rainforest) from destruction, often at the hands of white property owners living in distant countries.

Remember whatever you get involved in, it’s a time-wasting distraction to repeat over and over to your friends why racial justice, climate and environmental justice are three aspects of the same problem. Accomplish more when you join forces.

 It unnecessarily sucks energy from activists, too, when you repeat yourself. Energy that would be better spent doing the critical and constructive work of racial and eco-justice.

Just do it!

#3 Provide Technical Support to Affected Communities

Provide technical support to the community affected by environmental racism or climate injustice.

What this means will vary depending on what your expertise is and what your group’s financial capabilities are.

An equitable redistribution of funds or more fundraising will help you get more accomplished. 

For example:

  • Rebuild POC-owned businesses destroyed in the Black Lives Matter protests with grants.
  • Weatherize or fortify homes at risk for flooding or wildfires through grants.
  • Seek out a solar panel community grant and help with installation of rooftop solar.
  • Create and maintain community gardens to improve food access and nutrition for disadvantaged individuals using grant funding.

These are just a few ideas. Your situation may present other opportunities. Converse with community members to find out what their needs and hopes are. Then go for it! Environmental racism and climate injustice will end one project at a time with your own two hands and loving heart engaged in the community.

Wrap Up

Like other forms of racism, environmental racism and climate injustice are systematically embedded all over the United States in communities where people of color live and work.

Dismantling the grip of racism, environmental racism and climate injustice will take work by everyone. 

There are several ways individuals can get involved in creating racial or ecoo-justice on their local levels. Begin by joining or creating an environmental or climate justice group. Recruit citizen leaders from the affected community. Offer guidance, training, support and technical help as needed and as your  group’s resources allow.

With persistence and hard work on a unified front, you will succeed.

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