Welcome to the University of Michigan Environmental Justice Initiative

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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 expectancy.

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

Environmental Racism

Environmental racism refers to the institutional rules, regulations, policies or government and/or corporate decisions that deliberately target certain communities for locally undesirable land uses, resulting in communities being disproportionately exposed to toxic and hazardous waste based upon certain prescribed biological characteristics. Environmental racism is caused by several factors, including intentional neglect, the need for a receptacle for pollutants in urban areas, and a lack of institutional power and low land values of people of color.

Environmental Equity

Environmental equity refers to the equal protection of environmental laws. For example, under CERCLA, hazardous and toxic waste sites in low income minority communities take 20% longer on average to be placed on the National Priorities List than do those sites in wealthier areas. Further, it has been shown that government fines are 6 times greater for companies in violation of RCRA (Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, 1976 ) in predominantly white communities than for predominantly black communities. Therefore, environmental equity means that:

  1. People of color are entitled to the same protections under environmental laws as any race of people.
  2. People of color are entitled to equal access at all levels of decision-making that apply to environmental protection.

Environmental Justice

Environmental Justice refers to those cultural norms and values, rules, regulations, behaviors, policies, and decisions to support sustainability, where all people can hold with confidence that their natural environmental is safe and productive. Environmental Justice is realized when all people can realize their highest potential, without interruption by environmental racism or inequity. Environmental Justice is supported by decent paying and secure jobs; quality schools and recreation; decent housing and adequate health care; democratic decision-making; and finally, personal empowerment. A community of Environmental Justice is one in which both cultural and biological diversity are respected, and where there is equal access to institutions and ample resources to grow and prosper.

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