The intersection of race and the environment

August 10, 2020
By: Andrew Cohen
A panel of UC Berkeley experts discussed the intersection of race and the environment on Monday. (UC Berkeley video)

The racial justice and environmental justice movements have functioned independently for far too long, according to three UC Berkeley scholars. 

During a livestreamed Berkeley Conversations event on Monday that was moderated by Berkeley Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky, professors john a. powell, Claudia Polsky and Charisma Acey described a litany of historical and current reasons why environmental harms disproportionately affect people of color. 

A Berkeley Law professor and director of the campus’s Othering & Belonging Institute, powell explained how water quality, access and affordability problems in his native Detroit and other major cities are routinely tied to discriminatory housing and city planning practices. 

He also discussed a two-year national study showing that the vast majority of toxic dumps are located in Black and Latinx communities. 

“It’s not explained by socio-economic reasons … A Black person making over $60,000 a year is more likely to live next to a toxic dumpsite than a white person making less than $10,000 a year,” powell said. 

Polsky, who directs Berkeley Law’s Environmental Law Clinic, said society has reached a “historical moment when racial tensions and the planet are on high boil.” She added that protecting “the world’s un-air-conditioned majority” requires an understanding that environmental and racial justice are inextricably connected.

Noting that her extensive academic training and employment history in environmental law was “wholly deracialized,” Polsky said it’s no wonder why many white academics who study and teach environmental issues “come flat-footed to conversations about race.”

She lamented the inequitable percentage of non-white communities forced to accept a noxious land use and of non-white workers forced to accept an environmentally hazardous job. “If white people can’t overcome racism and share power with people of color, whom polls have shown take climate change far more seriously … we have no shot at creating sustainable planetary conditions,” Polsky said. 

Charisma Acey, a city and regional planning associate professor, tracked how land use decisions dating back nearly a century continue to perpetuate environmental injustice. Discussing recent headlines about lead contamination in her native Newark, New Jersey, she highlighted a historical thread of “stonewalling by officials” and a “frightened and frustrated Black population.” 

Saying this reflects a broader pattern demonstrating the link between racism and public health, Acey asserted that colonialism and its ties to racial geographic formation manifests itself today through toxic hotspots of pollution and illness in areas occupied mostly by people of color.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed racial zoning in 1917, Acey said cities have found “creative ways to exclude various groups of people from areas where they want to maintain their status or privilege.” She cited racially restrictive covenants, redlining, exclusionary and expulsive zoning, urban renewal and exclusion from participation in land use planning and regulatory processes as tools that fuel how “mainstream environmentalism often ignores the impact on communities of color.”