What Is Environmental Racism? - Definition & Ethics

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  • 0:04 What Is Environmental Racism?
  • 0:54 Impact
  • 2:18 Example
  • 2:59 Ethics of Environmental Racism
  • 6:06 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

Environmental racism is a concept that has been around for a few decades. It involves race, economics, health, and a lot more. Find out what it is as well as some ethical dilemmas posed by it.

What Is Environmental Racism?

A lot of people are pretty lucky to get up in the morning and take a breath of fresh, clean air, or turn on the tap and drink clean, uncontaminated water. But not everyone is so lucky in this country or other parts of the world, for that matter. It seems that a disproportionate number of people who live in environmentally hazardous areas are either minority groups and/or are people of low socioeconomic status. That's what environmental racism is basically about. It's the placement of people into environmentally hazardous areas or, conversely, the placement of environmental hazards into areas with high numbers of minority individuals and/or economically destitute populations.


There are plenty of communities suffering from environmental racism. For example, Native American land has been used as a place to dump radioactive nuclear waste. Latino individuals are more likely to live near large hazardous waste landfills. African Americans are more likely to live near uncontrolled toxic waste sites. Caucasians living in the mountains of Appalachia deal with contaminated drinking water from mountaintop mining.

This has led to a lot of problems. Some residents in these communities have suffered from health problems and have shorter life spans. Because of the toxic air, land, and water in these places, no one really wants to live or work there. This means some businesses are less likely to set up shop in these communities. If there is little business, there are fewer jobs. If there are no jobs, people cannot live a decent life. But because those who are living in these areas are typically of low socioeconomic status, they have neither the ability nor the resources to move to a better place. Since the people living in these areas have fewer economic resources, there is no need to build better buildings for them to live in or to maintain the old ones. Things fall into disrepair and neglect as a result, and the vicious cycle continues.


A very recent example of environmental racism can be found in the predominantly black city of Flint, Michigan. Here, water was poisoned with dangerous levels of lead, a substance that can lead to serious health consequences, including brain damage. Instead of accepting the problem and coming up with solutions, local and federal government entities actually tried to cover it up at first. Compare this with a dangerous natural gas leak found in the mainly white community of Porter Ranch, CA, where government officials have been far more responsive to the threat and the concerns of its citizens.

Ethics of Environmental Racism

In addition to affecting minorities or poor individuals in general, environmental racism has another common thread to it. These people often have little political clout to do anything about it. They are essentially taken advantage of and dumped on because they have so few resources and thus little ability to make their voices heard. Sometimes, local governments even stand up for mining companies or other waste producers and not for their own resident's environmental and, thus, health concerns.

As a result, communities that are better off financially are usually, but not always, better able to force local governments to act in environmentally ethical ways, not so much for the environment's sake, but for their own.

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