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Issues Of The Environment: Addressing Environmental Racism

Sandra Turner-Handy
Michigan Environmental Council

Systemic racism touches all aspects of life in America.  There is police brutality, economic oppression, lack of access to health care, less opportunity to advance, and not enough political clout to be heard.  It’s all connected.  Another component is environmental justice, and it contributes to all of the above.  In WEMU’s "Issues of the Environment," Michigan Environmental Council engagement director Sandra Turner-Handy explains why this is the time where real progress can be made. 


  • Currently, protests are taking place in Ypsilanti, Ann Arbor, Detroit, and in cities across the country calling for an end to systematic racism and inequality.  One form of systemic racism is environmental injustice. 
  • Those who are suffering from the effects of environmental injustice are often the least likely to have a chance to share their stories with policymakers who might be able to change the system.  Victims of environmental racism tend to be poor, sick, uninformed about the environmental risks in their community, minorities (especially African American, Hispanic immigrants, or Native American), and uneducated about how legislation can be changed to benefit them.
  • A prime example is PFAS (a pervasive environmental contaminant and byproduct of manufacturing that has polluted many areas of Michigan and caused illness).  PFAS in firefighting foam is being cleared from more affluent areas (including Ann Arbor) and being moved for storage to parts of Detroit where most residents are poor and black.  From there, PFAS is moved to Grand Ville, Idaho a rural community where the median family income is $26,000 per year. (*population figures from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grand_View,_Idaho)
  • Another example in Washtenaw County is the rezoning of property in the Bell-Kramer neighborhood on Ypsilanti's south side, which was discovered to be a former landfill contaminated with lead, naphthalene, and methane gas.  After years of living with the contamination, re-zoning has made the properties nearly impossible to sell.
  • Correcting systemic racism can only hope to happen when those who are not personally affected by injustice can connect to the real suffering of those who are vulnerable and hear their stories.

Environmental Racism

Environmental racism is the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color.  Environmental justice is the movement’s response to 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 and lax enforcement of zoning and environmental laws, resulting in communities being disproportionately exposed to toxic and hazardous waste based upon race. 

Environmental racism is caused by several factors, including intentional neglect, the alleged need for a receptacle for pollutants in urban areas, and a lack of institutional power and low land values of people of color.  It is a well-documented fact that communities of color and low-income communities are disproportionately impacted by polluting industries (and very specifically, hazardous waste facilities) and lax regulation of these industries. (Source: *directly quoted* http://greenaction.org/what-is-environmental-justice/)

Principles of Environmental Justice

Delegates to the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit held on October 24-27, 1991, in Washington DC, drafted and adopted 17 principles of Environmental Justice.  Since then, The Principles have served as a defining document for the growing grassroots movement for environmental justice.


WE, THE PEOPLE OF COLOR, gathered together at this multinational People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, to begin to build a national and international movement of all peoples of color to fight the destruction and taking of our lands and communities, do hereby re-establish our spiritual interdependence to the sacredness of our Mother Earth; to respect and celebrate each of our cultures, languages and beliefs about the natural world and our roles in healing ourselves; to ensure environmental justice; to promote economic alternatives which would contribute to the development of environmentally safe livelihoods; and, to secure our political, economic and cultural liberation that has been denied for over 500 years of colonization and oppression, resulting in the poisoning of our communities and land and the genocide of our peoples, do affirm and adopt these Principles of Environmental Justice: 

PRINCIPLES OF ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE (Source: *directly quoted* http://greenaction.org/what-is-environmental-justice/)

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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