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environmental racism/justice

“Environmental racism” refers, generally to environmental problems or decisions that have a disproportionate adverse effect on racial minorities. A classic example of “environmental racism” would be deciding to locate a hazardous waste dump in a minority neighborhood solely or largely on the basis of race.

The notion of “environmental racism”—and the environmental justice movement that sprang up to combat it—came of age in the 1980s. While isolated battles over environmental racism were fought earlier, the issue became a matter of broader concern to environmentalists, government officials and the general public in 1982 when rural African Americans in Warren County NC bitterly protested the state’s decision to locate a dump for soil contaminated with toxic chemicals in their area.

The protest led to a congressionally mandated study by the US General Accounting Office in 1983 that found that hazardous waste sites in the South tend to be located near African American neighborhoods. Other landmarks in the environmental justice movement include a study by the United Church of Christ in 1987 that expanded on the GAO study; the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, which was held in Washington, DC in 1991; a report by the National Law Journal in 1992 that found that under the Superfund program, the Environmental Protection Agency was likely to clean up toxic-waste sites in minority neighborhoods more slowly and to seek smaller penalties against polluters there; and Executive Order 12898, issued by President Clinton in 1994, which, for the first time, charged federal agencies with making environmental justice concerns a priority Until the advent of the environmental justice movement, the environmental movement tended to be seen as white and middle class, and increasingly dominated by large, national environmental organizations. The environmental justice movement, with its grassroots, poor minority appeal may change that.

The movement continues to bring up additional, more complex issues, such as the unexplained fact that poor blacks and Latinos have high rates of asthma and that those rates are rising.

As a movement that combines two politically charged issues—environmental protection and civil rights—the environmental justice movement has been enormously controversial. Its detractors charge, among other things, that it will make it more difficult to locate job-producing facilities in minority neighborhoods where the jobs are most needed. In addition, legal battles have arisen over how and whether Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 can be used to bring environmental justice claims.

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