Environmental Injustice is Deeply Rooted in Racism

landfill in focus with city line out of focus in the back highlights environmental injustice

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Systemic racism, discriminatory barriers, and racial violence cause immense hardship and suffering for people across the country and the world. That includes the disproportionate impacts BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) communities and low-income communities face from pollution, climate change, and the waste crisis. While most of the staff at Just Zero do not have these lived experiences, we see it in our work every day. And we know we can’t succeed in our work unless we call it out and prioritize addressing injustices that fuel the waste crisis.

Unjust by Design

The United States has a long history of systemic racism, classism, white supremacy, and other discriminatory injustices. Although countless public figures, advocates, organizations, and others have worked tirelessly to make our nation more just, equitable, diverse, and inclusive, we continue to find ourselves up against a wall. Why? Because our country is unjust by design. Our institutions were built by white, wealthy men to serve white, wealthy men. And sadly, most U.S. institutions continue to put the livelihoods of white, wealthy men above all others – particularly BIPOC communities, women, LGBTQ people, and low-income communities.

The hard truth is that racism is deeply rooted in our nation’s DNA. It’s why federal and state laws target communities of color. And why these groups are left out of conversations pertaining to their livelihoods. It’s why polluting industrial facilities and waste facilities are routinely forced into communities of color.

We, as a country, must accept this hard truth and own up to our past before we can truly build a more just, equitable, diverse, and inclusive future. The good news is that attitudes across the country are changing. But improvement in racial attitudes is not enough on its own. Not unless those attitudes include a willingness to act – and result in a significant overhaul of how our racist institutions function.

Symptoms of the Same Disease

Racism plagues our society. Its symptoms are wide-ranging, and they impact every system in our society. Segregation is a destructive and highly visible symptom, and it is the basis for many hardships that BIPOC folk, especially Black people, face. Unfortunately, little progress has been made in combatting segregation, especially in American neighborhoods. Even as the United States’ population becomes more diverse, white Americans still live in mostly white neighborhoods or metropolitan areas.

White people who grow up in white communities often don’t see or interact with BIPOC folk – at least not in a meaningful way. This reinforces the idea that people of color are outsiders and lesser than. Neighborhood segregation and lack of racial interaction perpetuate systemic racism at all levels – from individual to institutional and beyond.

Segregation is, of course, only one of many, many symptoms of systemic racism. This disease rears its head in a myriad of other ways, including:

  • Homeownership disparities: In 2022, 75% of white households owned their home, compared to 45% of Black households and 48% of Latinx households. Those gaps have stayed static for more than 50 years, despite the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
  • The racial wealth gap: The net wealth of the typical white American family is about 10 times as much as the typical Black American family or Latinx family.
  • Medical care: BIPOC folk experience higher rates of illness and death from a wide variety of health conditions than white people. For example, Black women are more than three times as likely to die because of a pregnancy or its complications. Black people are more than twice as likely as white people to fall within the Medicaid coverage gap, meaning that they cannot afford private insurance but do not meet eligibility criteria for Medicaid.
  • Police killings: Black Americans are killed by police at 2.6 times the rate of white Americans. Latinx Americans at 1.3 times the rate of white Americans. And Indigenous Americans at 3 times the rate of white Americans.

These are all manifestations of the same racist institutional rot. And although many of us often think of only the last item on that list as violent, each one of these manifestations is, itself, a form of violence. Each symptom of racism is another way in which white supremacist institutions, and those that benefit from them, degrade, devalue, and yes, kill BIPOC people. As a result of many of the overlapping factors listed above, average life expectancy in the U.S. is approximately four and a half years lower for Black people than it is for white people.

Waste and Environmental Injustice

Systemic racism, discriminatory barriers, and racial violence cause immense hardship and suffering for people across the country and the world. That includes the disproportionate impacts BIPOC communities and low-income communities face from pollution, climate change, and the waste crisis.

Right now, 76 million people in the U.S. live within three miles of a landfill or incinerator. Unsurprisingly, many of these toxic facilities are in communities of color, low-income communities, and communities with limited English-speaking proficiency.

This isn’t a new development. As waste generation increased in the U.S. in the 1970s and 1980s, the waste disposal industry boomed. Profit-driven waste companies knew that white communities would not want – or allow – these facilities in their own communities. So, the waste companies targeted communities of color to host these toxic plants.

Today, most of the country’s waste facilities – and the companies that run them – go unchecked. Weak laws and regulations around landfills and incinerators allow them to keep polluting, largely without consequence. As landfills get larger and larger, the problem gets more pronounced. States with higher land values and stricter environmental protections ship waste to less affluent states. Meanwhile, trash incinerators – especially the largest and most polluting incinerators – are disproportionately located in BIPOC and low-income communities. As we continue to rely on old, outdated waste technology – and as powerful corporations spend big money to maintain the status quo – the problem only gets worse.

Working to Right Wrongs

The fight against waste facilities in the United States began in Warren County, North Carolina in 1978. The state decided to build a landfill there – ignoring public concerns – so that it could bury soil laced with toxic chemicals that were known to cause severe health problems. More than 800 people showed up to a January 1979 hearing to protest the landfill. Yet, the state decided to move forward anyways. Why? Because Warren County was historically Black and poor. And because racism is deeply rooted in America’s DNA.

But that didn’t stop concerned residents. They knew their lives were worth fighting for. The community came together and filed a lawsuit, sent a delegation to meet with the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C., and organized peaceful protests. Sadly, their efforts did not stop the landfill from being built. But it did spur a movement and bring attention to the environmental injustices that impact BIPOC communities and low-income communities.

Just Zero is indebted to the legacy and leadership of the Black and brown leaders from Warren County, North Carolina, and to all the leaders in the environmental justice movement. We look to their legacy and leadership as we strive to center our own work through an environmental justice lens. Because all people – regardless of race, ethnicity, income, or location – deserve to live in healthy, safe communities free from polluting waste facilities.

Ending the Waste Crisis

The fact is, there is no racial justice without environmental justice. Our country, its leaders, and advocates must look to a holistic approach to end the environmental injustice plaguing our country. We need an approach that looks to folks directly impacted by environmental injustices, as they know what’s best for their communities.

That’s why Just Zero works alongside communities to shut down dangerous waste facilities. We will always follow their lead. It’s also why Just Zero works to advance policy solutions that not only stop waste before it starts, but also provide protections for all communities.

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