Environmental issues of race can be dated back as far as to both the American Genocide of Indigenous People and American Slavery. The impact on the environment alone can be a major frame of reference when discussing the massacre of those that nurture(d) this land and the over-cultivation of said land through unsustainable plantation agriculture that depletes biodiversity, causing drought-led contamination, land erosion and damage to soil fertility.

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The mother of environmental justice, Southside Chicago’s own Hazel M. Johnson is known for her fight against urban pollution in her work to confront the Chicago Housing Authority’s refusal to repair contamination done to its housing water supply as well as homes the CHA had knowingly built on top of illegal dumping sites of toxic waste. There have been laws enacted by Congress and the EPA for the last 40 years to protect land against hazardous waste disposal, although several of these laws only further designate more land and structures discriminately as “approved facilities” for landfills, impoundments and incinerators. The biggest toxic waste landfills in the country are those found in neighborhoods predominantly of color and low-income. The most negligence in regards to industrial risks to safety are found in neighborhoods of color and low-income. Asbestos exposure, harmful particles of outdated gasoline residuals, arsenic and lead poisoning are the lead causes of major health concerns in children and those pregnant living in these urban communities. Today such heavy metal contamination continues to be overlooked. Crude oil pipeline construction and fossil fuel drilling through Indigenous land continues to cause massive soil pollution as the frequency of unmanaged oil spills increase. Corner-cutting on the municipal level in water treatment continues to cause bacterial outbreaks and chemical exposure in Black residential areas, leading residents to resort to heating water from plastic bottles to even clean themselves.

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Throughout the states, public transit is being habitually underfunded and as a result often receives inconsistent maintenance. With local reforms to our transportation services, communities that would otherwise have limited mobility would gain access to schools, grocery stores, healthcare, and career opportunities. Public transit reduces collective emissions created by the use of personal automobiles and the manufacturing of personal automobiles. Public transit conserves land consumption (deforestation, habitat destruction, displacement of both animals and residents, etc.) caused by the construction of roads and parking needed for the use of personal automobiles. Public transit is more accessible for broad ranges of community members than personal automobiles are and actively contributes to the socialization of communities. Communities, especially those that make up a national majority and whose diversity ranges over a plethora of ethnic, cultural and economic backgrounds, thrive on socialization. A truly ecological discussion about transit inequality cannot be limited to an argument in favor of improved public transportation vehicle systems however. As much a positive change more usage of buses or trains may have on our environment and everyday lives, they should not be the goalpost. We must dream of a society where local residents need not travel any significant distances at all to access what should equally be local resources such as food, reliable work, recreation and any other basic human necessities mentioned in the other pillars of environmental racism. Ultimately, this means that the solutions to address transit inequality must work in tandem with those addressing the bulk of these other pillars.


It is the moral duty of the local government to maintain space for low-income residents by providing more supply of housing for new residents without taking up existing housing from current residents. Historically real estate firms without government reproach had sold previously block-busted properties to Black Americans for incredibly inflated prices and routinely offered backhanded “rent-to-own” installment plans on homes when many families could not qualify for discriminatory bank loans. No equity was offered through these plans and eventually, horrendous increases of rent yielded high eviction and turnover rates, forfeiting the money and property back into realtor hands. Today, time and time again the negative impacts associated with the gentrification process are cycles of subtly coerced block-busting, white flight, the reshaping of a community, and more destructively, the overall displacement of people. Although, displacement cannot be mentioned without acknowledging the racial and economic displacement that massacred and uprooted more than 3-dozen native tribes during the Trail of Tears & Indigenous American Removal Act. Displacement cannot be mentioned without acknowledging the Muslim bans and continuous detainment of immigrants in ICE detention camps, many of which are parents who then unlawfully lose custody of their children as the parent is deported and the child ends up in the child welfare system.

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Crime is racially and economically segregated. From indigenous reservations throughout the American and African continents, Jewish ghettos of Europe, to today’s urban ghettos filled with forcefully concentrated Black residents into often dilapidated and food scarce areas, de jure segregation by intentional government action through public policy and law breed the crime we habitually see oversimplified in media. This level of ethnic concentration is what the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation imposed with color coded maps of every city: Green defining neighborhoods deemed as safest, Yellow as mid, while Red was established for those neighborhoods filled with Black residents and therefore with high risk of crime and poverty even if those Black residents were of middle-class income. This red-lining continues to target poor and largely Black neighborhoods with separate but not equal segregation, discriminatory housing practices, and over-policing. In fact, these housing practices through inflated monthly home payments regularly force Black contract buyers to subdivide their apartments and cram in extra residents to already resource-deficient environments. Black people are expected to fix deeply structural disparities placed upon their communities that lead to violent crime. However, in severely segregated cities such as Detroit, Cleveland, Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Chicago, it is red-lining that created the conditions that deteriorate the ghetto, not its captive residents.

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When Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Betsy before it, devastated New Orleans, the Black population of the city who had begun to repair their own homes with little to no help from insurance companies, the Red Cross, and FEMA, saw no desire by the federal government to protect them. Today, post-Katrina EPA testing has shown an increased concentration of arsenic in residential soil and sediments as a result of this catastrophe. As of 2020, dilapidated housing and buildings of the Lower Ninth Ward area can still be easily spotted even from distant popular parts of town. Predominately Black and often lower-income neighborhoods like these sometimes continue to remain in this state decades after their horrendous desolation, existing for years as traumatic remainders of the 1970s South Bronx fires, the Philadelphia bombing of MOVE in 1985, the 1921 race massacre bombing in Tulsa, OK, and countless more.

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Hunger is NOT the same as a need to feel full. Hunger coexists with and is a key contributor to the social stigma of obesity. Any area with a maldistribution of food, where there’s poor access to good diets, inequities in the food labor process and unfair returns for key suppliers of food is fundamentally defined as food desert. The commonly perceived narrative of food scarce urban neighborhoods ignore the fact that many residents cannot afford memberships to big bulk box stores, may not have reliable or sizable cars to transport groceries, and may not have sufficient storage space for holding and maintaining food if any. Like most things, when your access to food is poor, you are placed into a situation where you will take whatever you can get. Often times this results in high processed meals, heavy amounts of sodium, sugars and fats being consumed because of their oversaturation within these neighborhoods and their medium to low cost. This means that a conversation of hunger cannot be conducted without simultaneously discussing overconsumption and malnutrition.

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The highest records of diabetes found in a community are those with the highest recorded conditions of food scarcity and poverty. The impact alone of high blood pressure and heart disease in Black residents of these communities is devastating. In an environment void of safe public parks and trails, where homes give no indoor or yard space for physical activity, and where residents of the community cannot afford lofty gym memberships, health crises in these neighborhoods are equally a direct result of lacking recreational access.

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In the 1960s, redlined and therefore, over crowded Chicago neighborhoods resulted in over crowded schools where students would be double shifted into some attending school only in the morning and the rest only in the afternoon. This left children of working class parents to fend for themselves during the pivotal moments they should otherwise typically be in school. Recreation for youth like these as well as adults alike, promote social & emotional learning, the development of creative and exploratory skills, relationship building, and a strong sense of responsibility to the communities they’re a part of. Recreational spaces can include but is not limited to church organizations, gyms and courts, urban farms and gardens, programs at local libraries and centers, sports clubs, parks and trails, and studios open to the public. These spaces also provide several residents with safety from possibly abusive and harsh conditions found elsewhere. With this in mind, a lack of recreation creates a social vacuum of an environment where learning cannot occur, social isolation leads to irrational anxiety, people become less involved in the wellbeing of the communities in which they live, and thus folks are more likely to acquiesce to conditions that affect them the greatest.

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Mainstream media environmentalism has a narrow and romanticized definition of environmental issues that more often than not, neglect people of color and low-income families. Its these communities that are not only affected the most but the ones that true environmental justice has always been reliant upon for the initiation of research, the definition of systematic issues, and leadership. Environmental issues cannot be discussed without also discussing the laborers and skills-people of land. In the Black community…for some that may not have been raised as privy to their rural roots as others, their first association with agriculture and horticulture can often be negative due to the generationally traumatic effects of antebellum slavery. The miseducated way in which popular history even teaches the narratives of African people pre-Transatlantic Slave Trade and during, further distances their descendants from sharing a connection with land as rich as that shared by Black agrarian infrastructures littered throughout history among the diasporas and continent. This deculturalization of Blacks from land cultivation practices is equally a result of the USDA and reconstruction era discrimination against Black farmers in its allocation of farm loans and assistance, as well as local enforcement preventing them from seeking farm work outside of debt peonage-styled sharecropping. As industrialization began and American family units shrank, it became the catalyst for segregation by lessening the use for Black exploited agricultural labor. More than 600,000 Blacks left the south for manufacturing work in the North and Midwest regions. With this, an emphasis on different skills were adapted for a more urban environment.

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