In theory, environmental risks like air pollution and global warming don’t discriminate across geographic or political boundaries. In reality, however, the burden of climate change has been placed squarely on the shoulders of low-income and minority groups across the globe. Communities of color regularly experience environmental racism–the systematic policies and practices that deny people of color the right to clean air and water, green space, and healthy food.
Hurricane Katrina illustrated that economic and infrastructure recovery from natural disasters often neglects communities of color, concentrating resources in higher-income and white neighborhoods. Natural disasters aside, people of color are more likely to live near toxic waste sites and landfills, drink unhealthy water, and have elevated blood levels of lead. These inequities can be traced back to federal housing agencies, bankers, and insurers who redlined Black neighborhoods, forcing Black residents into crowded cities while subsidizing white residents’ move to the suburbs. Without the resources and political power to influence urban planning, these communities were chosen as sites for oil refineries, gas compressor stations, factories, and waste sites.
A more subtle form of environmental racism, barriers like gear, transportation, and historic discrimination have led outdoor recreation to be a privilege, rather than a right. The legacy of exclusion of BIPOC in nature began with displacement of tribes from their ancestral homelands and subsequent destruction of vital resources by settler-colonialists. It then morphed into the white supremacist conservationist movement and segregation of the National Parks System. Today, the stories of Christian Cooper, who was threatened with violence while bird-watching in Central Park, and Ahmaud Arbery, who was murdered while jogging down a street in Georgia, are a reminder that Black, brown and Indigenous peoples are often threatened or made to feel unsafe in the outdoors.
While COVID-19 has demanded most of the country’s attention and resources, economic recovery from the pandemic and the use of future funding must integrate smart growth and environmental justice to create sustainable, resilient communities. Strategic investment can turn contaminated properties, abandoned buildings, and poorly designed streets into rain gardens, energy-efficient public housing, and protected bike lanes.
Even more broadly, the Environmental Justice Act of 2021 that was introduced by U.S. Senator Cory Booker would require federal agencies to mitigate environmental injustices through agencies while strengthening the legal protections for vulnerable communities. From policy changes to local initiatives, environmental justice will right historical wrongs that disproportionately harm communities of color, low-income and Indigenous communities.