Let’s Talk About Environmental Racism


Ready for a crash course on environmental racism? We've got you covered. 

As recent events have unfolded, Americans, yet again, are confronting the uncomfortable and violent reality that is systemic racism. For black Americans and other communities of color, this reality is unfortunately, a familiar one. Racism wears many faces - and one of the most prevalent, yet little-discussed is environmental racism. For those who do not experience it personally, the extent of environmental racism is hard to see. And when one cannot see racism, one cannot name it, and by extension, hope to fight it.

At Kind Traveler, we firmly believe that equity, education, and respect are fundamental to our company’s identity, to the health of our society, and to our world's welfare.

Following is a crash course in environmental racism…


Given its complicated subject matter and the pervasive role racism has played in the formation of American society, many scholars still have trouble agreeing on a universal definition of environmental racism. However, one definition that has stood the test of time comes from the “father of environmental justice,” Robert Bullard. As Bullard writes here:

“Environmental racism refers to any policy, practice, or directive that differentially affects or disadvantages (whether intended or unintended) individuals, groups, or communities based on race or color. It also includes exclusionary and restrictive practices that limit participation by people of color in decision making boards, commissions, and regulatory bodies.”


The term environmental racism was coined in 1982 by Dr. Benjamin Chavis, then director of the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice. Dr. Chavis coined the phrase in response to a protest against the siting of a hazardous waste landfill in a low-income, predominantly black neighborhood in Warren County, North Carolina.

The state government designated that 6,000 truckloads of contaminated PCB laced soil (a result of illegal dumping of toxic waste along roadways) be moved to the black community. Justly outraged, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) staged a protest, which eventually led to the arrest of over 500 protestors, including Dr. Chavis himself. While the protest was unfortunately unsuccessful at preventing the landfill from relocating, it did succeed at sparking a national environmental justice movement.

Protestors in Warren County, North Carolina (1982). www.ncpcbarchives.com


While the terminology may be new to some, America’s longstanding tradition of exploiting and exposing people of color to environmental burdens is as old as the nation itself. From the systematic and violent removal of Native Americans from their land to the Jim Crow practice of segregation in National Parks, instances of environmental racism far precede the 1982 protest in Warren County.

One such instance in 1960 best illustrates this point. Carolyn Finney, retells the true story in her book Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors. In it she writes:

“A white professor of theology from Boston University was planning an upcoming vacation at a National Park in Canada for himself, his wife, and an African American couple who were good friends. Aware of the hostilities toward black people in the United States, Dr. DeWolf wrote the owner of the Fundy Park Chalets in New Brunswick to eliminate any embarrassment that might befall his African American friends when they all showed up at the park. In his letter, Dr. DeWolf stated that he was “confident” that his friends would be treated well, but he just wanted to be sure. Dr. DeWolf described the husband as “university-trained, with four degrees, an author,” and underscored that both the husband and wife were highly cultured people “of superior character.” Dr. DeWolf did not get a response right away, and when he did, it was not the answer he hoped for. The owner of the chalets stated that because they get many American guests at their site, he could not “accept the possibility of embarrassment which may arise from this situation” (MacEachern 1995).

The irony of this story is that the African American couple that was refused a reservation at the Fundy Park Chalets in Fundy National Park was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King. Dr. King was simply exhausted from his civil rights work and wanted the chance to renew his spirit and focus on his writing. No doubt Zahniser, Leopold, Brower, and Muir would have understood Dr. King’s impulse to choose a national park—a wilderness setting—to find that renewal, inspiration, and peace. But not even someone as distinguished as Dr. King, arguably the most visible icon of the civil rights movement, could escape the vagaries of that time, even by crossing the border.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking at Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C.


It is easy for those who do not experience environmental racism first-hand to be skeptical of its existence. This largely has to do with how we, as a society, tend to view violence, which is to say, as explicitly harmful acts. Scholar and author Robert Nixon, calls to expand on this idea, with a concept he coined slow violence, or “violence that occurs gradually and out of sight.” Examples include, climate change, ocean acidification, deforestation, etc.

Environmental racism often falls under the umbrella of slow violence, making it difficult to adequately draw attention to it and thus fix. As a result, people typically pay attention to disasters, like hurricane Katrina and Maria, rather than focus on systematic inequality that exacerbates the consequences of those very disasters. "Fast" cinematic violence is prioritized over "slow" less visual violence making it difficult to identity and therefore solve environmental crises fueled by racial inequalities. It also makes it easier to disguise acts of injustice as merely acts of nature, erasing the root of the problem.

Photo by leonid-danilov, Pexels


While some may deny it, white privilege’s existence is as real as the racism it perpetuates. Acclaimed geographer and scholar Laura Pulido writes about the dangers of ignoring one’s white privilege in her article “Rethinking Environmental Racism.” As she so eloquently puts it:

“Because most white people do not see themselves as having malicious intentions, and because racism is associated with malicious intent, whites can exonerate themselves of all racist tendencies, all the while ignoring their investment in privilege. It is this ability to sever intent from outcome that allows whites to acknowledge that racism exists, yet seldom identify themselves as racists.”


1.  A report co-authored by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Coming Clean, and the Environmental Justice Health Alliance found:

  • Drinking water systems that constantly violated the law for years were 40 percent more likely to occur in places with higher percentages of residents who were people of color
  • Race, ethnicity, and language had the strongest relationship to slow and inadequate enforcement of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

2. In the United Church of Christ’s infamous study, Toxic Waste and Race in the United States (1987), researchers found:

  • “Race proved to be the most significant among variables tested In association with the location of commercial hazardous waste facilities.”
  • “Although socio-economic status appeared to play an important role In the location of commercial hazardous waste facilities, race still proved to be more significant”.
  • “In communities with one commercial hazardous waste facility, the average minority percentage of the population was twice the average minority percentage of the population in communities without such facilities (24 percent vs. 12 percent).”
  • “Three out of the five largest commercial hazardous waste landfills In the United States were located in predominantly Black* or Hispanic communities. These three landfills accounted for 40 percent of the total estimated commercial landfill capacity in the nation.”

3.  With roughly three million Americans infected, Covid-19 has already begun exacerbating existing racial inequalities and with fatal results. According to data from the Center for Disease Control (CDC):

  • Non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaska Native persons have a hospitalization rate approximately 5 times that of non-Hispanic white persons
  • Non-Hispanic black persons have a hospitalization rate approximately 5 times that of non-Hispanic white persons
  • Hispanic or Latino persons have a hospitalization rate approximately 4 times that of non-Hispanic white persons

There are thousands of grassroots environmental justice organizations that need support. Do your research and find one that speaks to you. What’s more, most organizations have volunteer opportunities. Don’t be afraid to reach out and inquire about getting involved. If you aren’t sure where to look, the NAACP keeps a list of environmental and climate justice organizations to consider.


Kate Eplboim is a travel writer and graduate of UCLA who passionately studied Literature and the Environment. Over the last four years, she has cultivated her passion for travel, environmental journalism, and gardening. She is a native of Los Angeles.