Environmental Racism

What You Need To Know

In 1982, the State of North Carolina chose a poor predominantly African American community for the placement of a toxic waste landfill to dispose of PCBs illegally dumped along the roadway of fourteen counties. Residents of Warren County, North Carolina enlisted the support of the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice (CRJ) to engage in a campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience.

In response to this experience, and from others across the nation, the CRJ commissioned a study to examine what was perceived at the time to be the intentional placement of hazardous waste sites, landfills, incinerators, and polluting industries in communities inhabited mainly by African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, Asians and Pacific Islanders, farm workers and the working poor. These groups were, and still are, particularly vulnerable because they are perceived as weak and passive citizens who will not fight back against the poisoning of their neighborhoods in fear that it may jeopardize jobs and economic survival. 

In releasing the findings of the 1987 study written by Charles Lee, the Rev. Benjamin Chavis, CRJ Executive Director, referred to intentionally selecting communities of color for wastes disposal sites and polluting industrial facilities – essentially condemning them to contamination – as “environmental racism.” He called on the United Church of Christ to be a champion working for environmental justice across the nation and across the world.

Why Is Environmental Racism an Issue of Faith?

People of faith are called to care for all of our neighbors, regardless of their race, their income level, or their life circumstances. Jesus taught us this behavior in the parable of the Good Samaritan. He was also a student of the Hebrew Scriptures where he learned to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” Jesus did not discriminate or separate people into artificial groups, but rather declared that the Kingdom of God is available to all of God’s children.

Racism divides people and alienates them against each other based on ethnic origin or color, and environmental racism adds an additional degree of injustice upon people or communities. Since 1987, the environmental justice movement has been trying to address inequalities that are the result of human settlement, industrial contamination and unsustainable development. Through the Environmental Justice Office, the United Church of Christ seeks to educate congregations and communities and to assist groups in organizing, mobilizing and empowering themselves to take charge of their lives, their communities and their surroundings. We also seek to address the issues of power imbalances, political disfranchisement and lack of resources in order to facilitate the creation and maintenance of healthy, livable and sustainable communities.

In the conclusions of the landmark report Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty 1987-2007, you will read that “people of color are found to be more concentrated around hazardous waste facilities than previously shown.” You will see that race matters. Place matters too. Unequal protection places communities of color at special risk. And polluting industries still follow the path of least resistance.

Climate change and global warming bring an additional peril to communities of color or poor communities all over the world. Many who live near the coasts or in lower-lying areas will be the first to feel the effects of rising temperatures and oceans. They will not have the resources to make choices that others can make and may lose their homes and their livelihoods and will be displaced as environmental refugees. Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf coast in 2005 was one of the most dramatic examples of what may occur in the future, as those who had no transportation or means of escaping the rising waters became refugees in their own city.

What You Can Do

The environmental justice movement is as much concerned about the environment as any of the traditional environmental groups. There is only one environment. The environmental justice movement is concerned about wetlands, birds and wilderness areas. It is also concerned, however, about urban habitats, about reservations, about the things that are happening on the US Mexican border, about children poisoned by lead in their own homes and about children playing in contaminated parks and playgrounds. The UCC is committed to keep bringing these issues to the attention of environmental groups, communities of faith, and the broader society. Here are a few suggestions about how you can become more aware of environmental racism and work for environmental justice:

  • Organize a group from your faith community to take a tour of your city and map the neighborhoods, commercial areas, industrial sites, and environmental hazards. Get familiar with zoning laws and urban planning, and see if your community practices any forms of environmental racism.
  • Organize a study group in your congregation that looks at the historic and current forms of environmental racism. Understand that discrimination is not always obvious and that it is present in social structures and local customs as much as it is present in individuals or organizations.
  • Attend an Environmental Justice workshop sponsored by the UCC and take what you have learned back to your community.
  • Join and support national or local organizations that seek to address environmental racism. If you belong to an organization that works to enhance the environment, help to make its members more aware of the issues and effects of environmental racism.

Links and Resources