What Is Environmental Justice, And Why Should I Care?

Top photo: Judy Herman

By Christopher Ozomgi, Environmental Journalist

2020 brought a host of long-contentious issues back to the forefront of American politics — police brutality, systemic racism, and wealth inequality come to mind — and thrust back into the spotlight was the hot-button concept of environmental justice. Originally thrust into prominence in 1994 when then-president Bill Clinton signed an executive order “directing federal agencies to include consideration of health and environmental conditions in minority, tribal, and low-income communities into agency decision-making” (Environmental Law Institute), environmental justice returned to the national dialogue this past year. Such a return, of course, is intrinsically linked to the incoming platform of President Joe Biden, who has staunchly pledged to tackle “America’s persistent racial and economic disparities,” according to The Washington Post. As any environmental justice advocate will tell you, a discussion of racial and economic disparities is incomplete without mentioning differences in the implementation of environmental standards and laws. This is because environmental justice, fundamentally, is about enforcing the fair, impartial treatment of all individuals, with regards to protection from environmental and health hazards. Such hazards, as one might guess, disproportionately encumber the poor and people of color.

Thus, any discussion of racial or economic justice is fundamentally incomplete without the introduction of environmental justice. To see this interconnectedness, look at South Los Angeles, an area long plagued by carefully planned environmental racism. Today, South L.A. is “predominantly [a] black and brown low income community,” as well as a home to “multiple sources of pollution,” according to Scope LA. As one might guess, the link between minority housing and higher rates of pollution was not established by chance; rather, it was consciously designed that way by 20th century city planners, in an effort to preserve the (white) racial homogeneity of the less-polluted and wealthier West Side. Said design was realized through the implementation of “redlining and restrictive covenants” which “limited housing options for Black, Latino, and Asian communities in Los Angeles” (Scope LA). Ultimately, Scope LA asserts that “these racist practices made it so that in the 1920s, people of color were barred from accessing about 95% of the city’s housing stock.” 

Race and ethnicity 2010: Los Angeles

By Eric Fischer – CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57275754

Red is White,

Blue is Black,

Green is Asian,

Orange is Hispanic,

Yellow is Other,

and each dot is 25 residents.

Data from Census 2010. 

Furthermore, the city’s racist housing practices were not just restrictive; they also involved active seizures of Black-owned property in high-value areas under the guise of eminent domain. As widely reported recently, one of the most notorious cases of eminent domain being abused occurred in 1924 at Bruce’s Beach in Manhattan Beach. According to Adrienne Alpert of ABC 7, “the City of Manhattan Beach used eminent domain to force Willa and Charles Bruce [among the first Black landowners in the city] off their land where they lived and ran a resort for Black families.” Clearly, there has been a historical effort to limit Black people in the Los Angeles area to certain neighborhoods, while preventing them from moving to others. Continuing racial discrimination in home sales and rising real estate prices, which also limit mobility, have conspired to ensure that Los Angeles’ people of color are disproportionately affected by toxic pollution and other environmental risks.

This is what environmental justice means: ensuring the equal protection of all peoples — regardless of socioeconomic or racial identity — from environmental hazards. Poorer people of color should not be subjected to lesser environmental conditions than the rich or white. This is not an implausible utopia, nor is it naive; it can be accomplished — both nationally and in California — through the consolidation and enforcement of a comprehensive environmental legal code. The next time you hear the term “environmental justice,” I implore you to think about South Los Angeles — and our PV-SB members and friends in communities like Gardena, Carson, Compton, Wilmington and San Pedro. Remember the interwoven nature of environmental, racial, and economic justice, and join the effort to bring them about.

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