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Background: The Problem of Disproportionate Burdens
While people of color and low-income groups have long recognized that
they are disproportionately impacted by environmental insults, only
recently have scholars, policy makers, and community activists become
aware of the fact that environmental hazards of all kinds fall inequitably
on African Americans and other minorities (Asch and Seneca, 1978; Berry,
1977; Bullard, 1983; Gelobter, 1988; Gianessi, Peskin and Wolff, 1979;
U.S. General Accounting Office, 1983; Kruvant, 1975; Commission for
Racial Justice, 1987; Zupan, 1973).
Environmental scholars and activists alike have in recent years begun
to positively respond to the public's criticisms of the perceived narrow
focus of their work. It is no longer enough to champion old growth forests
or to protect the snail darter or the habitat of the spotted owl. To
do so without likewise championing clean, safe urban environments and
improved urban habitats of the homeless is recognized by all as unconscionable.
Millions of people of color live in cities such as Baltimore, Cleveland,
Detroit, Gary, Chicago, Milwaukee, Los Angeles and metropolitan areas
across the country that are differentially impacted by environmental
insults. Millions of people are differentially exposed to atmospheric
deposition, toxic waste dumps, landfills, accidental spills; millions
of people are exposed to the by-products of industries and sewage treatment
plants and threatened by freeways, urban decay (or by urban development),
and surrounded by concrete streets, buildings, and parking lots which
cut them off from greenspace. They are threatened by overcrowded conditions
and overburdened by oftentimes abject poverty.
People of color are beginning to realize that issues of environmental
degradation, economics, power politics, and racial discrimination, intricately
interwoven with one another, cannot be separated. They have come to
realize that their fate is integrally tied to the complex web of life
and that to destroy or befoul one aspect of that web will eventually
have dire implications for life on the planet. It is clearly evident
that environmental degradation has been affecting people and differentially
affecting people of color.
Is a clean, safe environment a civil right? Communities of color feel
that they have the same right to clean air, water, and an unpolluted
land base as more affluent suburbanites. They often question the use
of their communities for receptacles for toxic and hazardous waste and
siting of polluting industries; they are downright angry that their
communities are being poisoned so that others may live in affluence
and in clean and safe biophysical environments.
Over the past two decades, the quality of life in the cities has become
progressively worse. Communities and schools are more segregated. Cities
are bankrupt, infested with crime and drugs, and unable to provide adequate
services or to protect citizens against environmental wrongs. Oftentimes
economically desperate communities have fewer concerns about environmental
wrongs, because they are more interested in jobs and economic development.
In many cases they offer tax abatements and other incentives to lure
industries to their communities. Economically desperate communities
often see only the benefits and ignore the risks resulting from the
siting of commercial hazardous waste facilities and polluting industries.
Out of economic desperation, local governments may end up sacrificing
long-term health for short-term economic gain, as they compete with
other municipalities for plant location and jobsÑjobs that often
put both workers and communities at risk. An analysis of any statistical
health chart may be interpreted to mean that the true meaning of the
trickle-down theory is not money or wealth, but environmental stressors,
which in turn may give rise to health problems and an abbreviated life
Those most vulnerable to environmental insults are among the millions
in this country least able to afford health insurance or meager forms
of health care. Environmental health risks are intricately linked to
political economy of place, where "political and economic power are
key factors which influence the spatial distribution of residential
amenities and disamenities" (Bullard and Wright, 1987). Because of their
impoverished condition, people of color can ill- afford to move to the
suburbs where cleaner air, water, and neighborhoods can be found.
Some Helpful Definitions of Terms Used in the Environmental Justice Movement
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