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Environmental Racism and Environmental Justice


Subject Business Pages 5 Style APA



Environmental racism is an issue that is deeply embedded in American society. This statement is made by philosopher Wenz who examined instances of environmental racism across the United States (449). Besides, he analyzed two sets of arguments; those rationalizing and those defending the apparent facts on environmental racism. Wenz made the affirmative that economic factors were often used to justify instances of racial discrimination even when all the other factors alluded to racial discrimination in the distribution of environmental wastes and burdens. Wenz’s argument illustrates the lack of justice in the distribution of certain societal burdens (449). Similar sentiments are expressed by Bullard, who equally laments about the USA’s intensity of environmental racism (151). Their views form the basis for this philosophical research paper, which evaluates the definition of environmental racism and environmental justice. It further highlights the moral issues involved and proposes corrective measures. In line with these evaluations, this paper emphasizes the need for the principle of equivalent burdens and benefits in allocating environmental resources.

Environmental Racism

           Different authors lament the negative impacts of environmental racism as it contradicts the policymakers’ philosophical principles of distributive justice and ethical conduct. This area of study has attracted intensive scrutiny from philosophers, thus eliciting varied definitions. For instance, Westra defines environmental racism as the disproportionate disposal and allocation of environmental hazards, where the people of color are mostly targeted (103). Because of the extensive attention, this topic has received since the 1970s; there are various definitions of environmental racism. According to Westra, as much as environmental racism has emerged as a new issue in the USA and other less-developed countries, it has been a persistent challenge in Canada (103). She, therefore, introduces a different perspective in the discussions on this topic by noting that environmental racism is not only in the USA but also in other countries, including Canada. Westra defines environmental racism as any form of discrimination that targets minority groups and perpetrated against perceived Third World countries (104). Subjugation is practiced either through or in the environment, especially by the discriminative allocation of environmental resources or biased disposal of wastes by hazardous industries. 

The author explains that environmental racism involves practices such as creating dumping sites for toxic wastes in areas inhabited by people of color, hiring native Americans and blacks in hazardous industries, and exporting poisonous wastes to developing countries. Westra argues that issues affecting the aboriginal communities of Canada should be defined differently regarding environmental racism (104). Their definition should incorporate elements such as treaty rights and sovereignty rights. These issues are peculiar to the Aboriginals but do not apply to cases of African Americans or American Indians in either rural or urban areas in both the USA and Canada because they are not the original owners of the land. Westra explains that Indians in the United States are often regarded as domestic dependent nations. In such a case, they possess residual sovereign powers. 

On the contrary, the Aboriginal communities are protected by the constitution, thus have a right to seek recognition and subsequent protection as per the Constitution of Canada which decrees to the rights of the Aboriginals to practice self-governance. By being protected by the constitution, it is mandated that their definition of environmental racism is adjusted since their forms of movement are not grounded on state terrorism, repression, and violence, as is the case for the minority groups in the USA. Before February 11, 1994, Westra argues that environmental racism was hardly seen as an issue until the Clinton Administration signed an executive order endorsing environmental justice for minority communities as a critical issue to be settled by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (Westra, 119). Similarly, the Indian government has made significant strides in alleviating environmental racism in Canada. For instance, the Federal Government introduced the Indian Act and the Mohawk’s Governance Act to address past historical injustices and restore justice in the allocation of environmental resources. 

Some of the injustices date back to the 1717 land grants, which pitted the Kanesatake people against the Mohawks. The conflict was worsened by the decision by the Canadian government to deprive the Mohawks of rights to their land. This case law is reported in Corinthe vs. Seminary of St. Sulpice, where the defendant accused the seminary of selling property belonging to the aboriginals (Westra, 105). The government’s decision made in 1945, to intervene in the issue by purchasing the remaining land worsened the conflict as the Mohawks complained of being ignored by the government. The ensuing ideological and political controversies triggered the violence at Oka. Some of the issues revolved around self-governance by the natives, and disagreements on the historical residences of the native tribes. 

Environmental Justice

In response to the disservice committed against some races, there have arisen movements resisting discriminative policies. Guided by this understanding, Bullard defines environmental justice as the movement that responds to instances of environmental racism (151). While presenting this definition, the author is categorical that environmental justice is not a synonym for environmental equity since the latter refers to responses made by the government to the demands of the environmental movements. For instance, since the founding of the environmental justice movement, government agencies such as EPA have made several attempts at redefining the meaning of environmental justice to mean meaning involvement and fair treatment (Bullard, 152). However, the movement has consistently insisted that the term environmental justice should share the vision of abolishing environmental harms and not merely redistributing it.

Bullard made extensive observations and wrote numerous reports on environmental justice issues in the 21st century. According to his comments, the race is still used as a determinant in the allocation of resources. He observes that the media is full of stories on neighborhoods and communities fighting the establishment of chemical plants, landfills, incinerators, and other proposals to dispose of wastes in their locality. Bullard laments that this was not the case three to four decades ago (153). During this period, the concept of environmental justice was not as common as it is today. In the present, there have emerged civil rights, social justice groups, and environmental groups advocating for the complete eradication of environmental harm. It is speculated that the early engagement of Martin Luther King Jr. might have marked the onset of the movement. As much as he was assassinated before completing his mission of promoting environmental justice, his actions motivated the rise of movements such as the Northeast Community Action Group (NECAG), which filed class-action lawsuits to stop the establishment of toxic landfills in suburban neighborhoods with African Americans and other minority groups. This statement is evident with the landmark case law titled Bean vs. Southwestern Waste Management, Inc., [1979] (Bullard, 154). Apart from this evidence, research by the General Accounting Office established that 3 out of 4 commercial toxic wastes landfills in 4 regions were predominantly located in African-American communities. Surprisingly, African Americans composed the smallest population of around 20% in these regions. The report prompted the calling out of Warren County in North Carolina for environmental racism. These discussions, therefore, reinforce the definitions of the term’s environmental racism and environmental justice.

Whereas Bullard and Westra present strong points incriminating environmental racism and environmental justice as moral issues, other authors have presented divergent views. This includes Philosopher Wenz, who provides a rounded analysis of environmental justice and environmental racism. His narration highlights a different angle of justice and racism that other authors and philosophers often overlook. In the article titled ‘Just garbage, Wenz argues that policymakers often rationalize their discriminative acts by claiming that the selection of dumping sites and issues seen as environmental racism is merely determined by extraneous factors and not wholly dependent on race (450). Therefore, the proponents of these arguments emphasize that as much as environmental racism and associated inequalities are regrettable, they should not be classified as moral issues, but instead viewed as an approach to achieving societal justice. Wenz clarifies this argument by invoking the utilitarian ethical theory, which argues that ethics should provide the highest good to the most people (451). Using this argument, some people justify that locating toxic landfills in areas with minority communities causes the least harm to the minority while safeguarding the majority. For instance, since minorities live in suburban areas, it is only prudent for the policymakers to position disposal sites for toxic herbicides, toxic chemicals, and radiative wastes in areas with the least populations. It, therefore, happens that coincidentally, the African Americans reside in these areas.

Moral Issues Involved in Environmental Justice and Environmental Racism

It is prudent to acknowledge that environmental racism and environmental justice are not right or left issues, and are neither white or black; instead, they should be called out for moral issues. Barber argues that as much as pollution does not discriminate its victims based on race, it is common to direct toxic and hazardous waste to some communities and neighborhood, compromising their quality of life while enriching the wealthy few (para 3). An example is North Carolina, where multi-billion-dollar companies such as Chemours Chemical Company and Duke Energy contaminate the environment through their operations in the area. Surprisingly, the company overlooks their pleas to introduce sustainable waste disposal alternatives. In this example, environmental racism and environmental justice issues are brought to light as moral issues in the way the companies negatively impact the lives of the poor communities living in the area, while benefiting the few multimillionaires who make their fortune from the companies. Around 140 million Americans living in poverty are the most affected by environmental health issues (Rasmussen, 13). Surprisingly, these corporations, despite making billions of dollars in profits, political finance campaigns, but not health insurance and medical care programs for the affected communities.

Considering the environmental justice and environmental racism are moral issues, it is quintessential that they are addressed. Barber proposes that the first step to addressing these issues is by understanding systemic racism and systemic poverty (para 4). These factors are denying the community opportunities, keeping the populations sick, unproductive, and without access to quality healthcare services. The cyclic problems affect society, thus subjecting the people to continuous disadvantage against the other races. The second step to addressing environmental racism is by talking to the communities living in the affected areas. These are the voices that should guide the enactment of functional policies that safeguard their interests. Third, the government should play proactive roles in conducting environmental assessment reports to establish the validity of claims made by the environmental justice movements (Barber, para 7). By doing this, it will be easier to hold companies accountable for their immoral and unethical practices.


This research paper extensively discusses the topics of environmental racism and environmental justice. Environmental racism is defined as the disproportionate disposal and allocation of environmental hazards, where the people of color are mostly targeted. In contrast, environmental justice denotes the movement that responds to instances of environmental racism. It is noted that the definition of environmental racism is often varied depending on the nature of rights accorded to the communities involved. For instance, if the constitution of Canada protects the First Nation or the Aboriginal communities in Canada with rights. On the other hand, the minority groups, especially African Americans, are often the targets in improper disposal of toxic and hazardous wastes. These actions prompted the rise of movements to advocate for the eradication of waste and to enforce policies on a cleaner environment. This paper establishes that environmental justice and environmental racism are moral issues that should be addressed to ensure equitable societies that have fair access to resources.





Barber, William. Ecological Justice Is A Moral Issue, 2018. Retrieved from: https://medium.com/brepairers/ecological-justice-is-a-moral-issue-92ddd60c3ce8

Bullard, Robert D. “Environmental justice in the 21st century: Race still matters.” Phylon (1960-) 49.3/4 (2001): 151-171.

Rasmussen, Larry. “Environmental racism and environmental justice: moral theory in the making?” Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics (2004): 3-28.

Wenz, Peter S. “Just garbage: The problem of environmental racism.” Environmental Ethics: Readings in Theory and Application (2012): 530-547.

Westra, Laura. “Environmental racism and the first nations of Canada: terrorism at Oka.” Journal of Social Philosophy 30.1 (1999): 103-124.


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