The Explainer: Amid a surge of protests over police violence against Black Americans this summer, there’s been renewed scrutiny over the links between racism and environmental degradation in the United States. What are the connections between these two issues?
Browning: Minority environmental activists and scholars of environmental justice (EJ) have long seen the links between racism and environmental degradation. In fact, the term “environmental racism” best encapsulates how racial bias has shaped minority communities’ experiences of environmental injustices, such as proximity to hazardous waste sites and other toxic facilities.
The modern EJ movement took off in the late 1980s, with the most famous cases catalyzing the movement taking place in the South. Perhaps most prominent in EJ’s early history is Warren County, North Carolina, where activists fought the siting of a chemical-waste landfill. This led to the first national study of the siting of hazardous waste facilities near communities of color—Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States, published by the United Church of Christ in 1987. However, minority communities laid the groundwork for concerted EJ activism during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and 1970s through collective actions like the Memphis Sanitation Strike of 1968.
We can go even further back, before the 20th century, where we see a ongoing history of discriminatory siting of hazardous industries near nonwhite and low-income communities. In fact, the concept of whiteness in America has evolved alongside the idea of hygiene and its links to environmental purity. Unfortunately, racist tropes about racial hygiene are still around. Just last month, an Ohio state senator suggested in a public meeting that African Americans were more susceptible to covid-19 because of his theory that they are less likely to practice proper handwashing measures.
The pandemic and recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations have shown how environmental racism becomes manifest in compromised human health, social disruption, and economic impoverishment. The crisis of racism and the crisis of covid-19 have converged to reveal a “pandemic within a pandemic”—as African Americans are uniquely susceptible to three crises—police brutality, devastating unemployment, and the deadliest pandemic in over a century.
In order to establish a coordinated response to these integrated problems, we must come to face the country’s legacy of racial oppression, including slavery, racial terrorism, segregation laws, and mass incarceration. And it’s important to note that such a response must address the long-term human health impacts that climate change will have, as these impacts will hurt minority and low-income communities the most. These are the kinds of “slow violence” that perpetuate racial inequalities, including premature death.
The Explainer: The environmental movement in the United States has been criticized in the past for valuing conservation and the protection of wildlife over vulnerable populations. It’s also been criticized for being too white and unwelcoming to people of color. Has this slowed progress on addressing issues like climate change?
Browning: The conservation movement’s mainstream organizations have historically excluded and marginalized minorities, and have been slow to address EJ issues. By failing to account for the full spectrum of environmental knowledge that exists within our diverse society, the environmental movement has certainly lost valuable time and opportunities to tackle the devastating social impacts of climate change. Since climate change disproportionately harms low-income communities of color, environmentalists must prioritize learning from these communities’ experiences, and ensuring that their voices are represented within the leadership ranks.
But, as Carolyn Finney has explained, it’s important to not automatically assign an EJ framework to every conversation we have about African Americans’ relationships with the environment. As with all social-environmental relations, these relationships are rich and complex, and we need to triangulate EJ concerns with other frameworks of understanding African Americans’ engagements with environmentalism.
Our conventional definitions of “nature” and “environmentalism” harken to the origins of the National Parks and wilderness areas, and these concepts are largely the products of nineteenth-century American conservation thought, which was dominated by elite, white men. The origins of the conservation movement also have ties to the period’s theories of scientific racism and eugenics, as well as immigration restrictions.
Often erased from this history is the violent removal of indigenous peoples from their native lands, and the criminalization of indigenous people’s traditional practices, including fishing, hunting, and harvesting timber. In addition, historically, these spaces of recreation excluded Black Americans, both with laws that enforced segregation, and through implicit design, where parks could only be accessed by those who had the privileged means to have leisure time and access to transportation.
Despite these exclusionary tactics, African Americans forged their own places of leisure and retreat in nature, and we need to recognize and celebrate these spaces as part of our national heritage.
The Explainer: Like much of the US, Indiana has a history of exposing communities of color to the risks of industrial pollution and other environmental hazards. How did this injustice come to be and what have been some of its consequences?
Browning: To understand environmental racism, we have to understand our nation’s history of racial segregation, and how it was achieved through restrictive covenants, racial zoning, redlining, and the use of eminent domain in urban renewal measures.
The rise of restrictive racial zoning in Indianapolis illustrates this point. But to understand the historical thread of anti-black racism, you have to go back to 1851, when the Indiana Supreme Court amended the state constitution to prohibit African Americans from living in the state. In 1866 the article was expunged, and Black residents began to see better treatment, including election to the city council.
But as Indianapolis’s Black population increased in the first two decades of the twentieth century, whites tried to exclude them from their neighborhoods through both violent attacks and a series of regulatory mechanisms, including a city law enacted in 1920 that prevented Black people from owning homes in white neighborhoods, and a city council zoning ordinance in 1926 that mandated the segregation of white and Black communities.
These kinds of measures were ubiquitous in northern and southern cities alike. This history of racism and segregation then helps us understand how something as egregious as Flint’s lead poisoning crisis occurred in 2015, but also how chronic environmental health problems such as asthma affect African Americans.
In Indiana, ERI’s Hoosier Life Survey has shown that Hoosiers of color are more likely than white Hoosiers to be concerned that climate change will negatively affect them. These higher levels of concern are reflective of minority communities’ disproportionate vulnerability to climate changes’ impacts from extreme weather events. For example, Black Americans are more likely to live in urban heat islands, and 2.5 times more likely to die from heat-related causes than white Americans.
When thinking about the historical context of these varied views on climate change impacts, we should also be attuned to gendered differences in individuals’ experiences of environmental inequalities. A recent study showed that pregnant women exposed to high temperatures and air pollution are more likely to have pregnancy complications, including giving birth to premature or underweight babies—factors that influence an individual’s health (including disease vulnerability and brain development) over the course of their lifetime. African American mothers and babies suffer from these consequences at a higher rate than the population at large.
The Explainer: In your own research, what stories have you come across that illustrate the environmental impacts of systemic racism in Indiana?
Browning: I’ve long been interested in the Calumet region, and have closely followed the East Chicago lead crisis. It’s striking to think that a much-celebrated victory in the environmental movement—the preservation of the Indiana Dunes, and its designation as a national park, is less than thirty miles from a starkly visible sign of our failures to address EJ in our state—the now-demolished West Calumet Housing Complex in East Chicago’s USS Lead Superfund Site.
The site was listed on the National Priorities List of the worst contaminated places in the country in 2009. However, government regulators knew about the contamination back in the 1970s, when the East Chicago Housing Authority built the West Calumet Complex on the former grounds of a longstanding lead smelter.
One of the leading voices in the fight to clean up the area is Calumet Lives Matter, which has expressed concern that the EPA has planned to only dig and clean up the top two feet of soil. The Superfund site has hydraulic linkages to the Indiana Harbor Shipping Canal, the Grand Calumet River, and the Lake Michigan watershed, leaving this area particularly vulnerable to the projected rise of the water table due to the effects of climate change.
Lead contamination has jeopardized other minority communities around the state, including the Martindale-Brightwood neighborhood in northeast Indianapolis. Another important story about environmental health and environmental justice is related to the energy sector, and minority communities’ disproportionate rates of asthma and other health issues due to coal plants’ associated air and water pollution. For example, generations of African American families living near Michigan City’s NIPSCO coal plant have suffered from asthma, and the plant’s coal ash ponds have contaminated the area’s groundwater.
The Explainer: Who is working on documenting this history and making it more visible?
Browning: Minority environmental advocates and EJ activists are at the forefront of discussing these issues, documenting environmental health issues in our communities (which is crucial, considering that the traditional archive does not preserve this kind of data), and helping us understand our history’s enduring legacies of racism. For example, Cheryl Johnson, Executive Director of the People for Community Recovery (PCR), has built a cross-cutting campaign around EJ issues in Southeast Chicago. She follows her mother Hazel Johnson who founded PCR in 1979 and was dubbed the “Mother of the Environmental Justice Movement” at the first National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in 1992.
EJ scholars, environmental historians, geographers, and sociologists are also working to advance these conversations in scholarship and in public discourse. One simple thing scholars can do in this vein is diversify their syllabi, and address the history of environmental racism in class discussions. Educators would benefit from having their students talk to community members, and conduct oral histories like those archived at Land Talk.
In Indiana, lots of wonderful organizations are bringing tools and programming to the table, including the NAACP’s Indiana State Conference and Environmental Climate Justice Chair Denise Abdul-Rahman, Hoosier Environmental Council, Earth Charter Indiana, Kheprw Institute, environmental public interest law advocates at Earthjustice; and local organizations like Calumet Lives Matter, the Martindale-Brightwood Environmental Justice Collaborative, and Southwestern Indiana Citizens for Quality of Life.
Also bringing attention to this history are Black researchers, naturalists, and outdoor enthusiasts who are working to address racism in outdoor recreation and fieldwork, and disrupt stereotypes within the realm of environmentalism.
But there’s so much to be done. It’s going to take action from as many sectors and stakeholders as we can imagine—from industry to utilities, agriculture to government—to become educated on these issues, understand why we need to care about them, and ultimately act to create a more equitable nation with safe and healthy environments for all communities.
The Explainer: How might structural changes in society to address systemic racism contribute to environmental solutions?
Browning: Since low-income minority communities bear the brunt of climate change’s impacts, the first step to addressing climate change requires addressing systemic racism. Some people might not immediately equate police violence with the social externalities of climate change, but when we look closely at, for example, the urban heat island effect, it’s clear there’s a connecting thread—systemic racism, and a devaluation of Black lives. We’re seeing this with covid-19 as well. It’s clear we as a nation haven’t committed enough resources and have not expressed enough collective compassion to tackle EJ issues. Nor have we really recognized how our history still shapes our perspectives on race and equality.
To start to tackle these issues, we need to recognize and recruit people of color in all aspects of scientific knowledge production and environmental advocacy. For example, we must prioritize diverse voices within climate change research, and mitigation and adaptation measures in areas such as community planning, food systems, and housing and poverty reform. We need to focus on reducing our carbon footprints, shifting to clean energy, and investing resources in creating more livable communities, with green infrastructure, and community gardens. And throughout all these measures we need to create multiracial coalitions to address climate change, and boost local economies with green jobs.
As a historian, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that a big part of what we need moving forward is a more comprehensive narrative of Americans’ past relationships with nature, a narrative that is more inclusive, and reflective of those who have historically been excluded from these stories. With these more robust forms of storytelling, we can have an even more expansive imagining of potential futures that will inspire hope and motivate the broad-scale social change that climate change requires of us.
The ERI Explainer poses questions on environmental change and resilience to IU experts. Got a question for the Explainer? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with “Explainer” in the subject line.