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Environmental Racism

Theological Background

In Isaiah we are given divine insight into our relations with one another “If you remove the yoke from among you, the finger-pointing, the wicked speech; if you open your heart to the hungry, and provide abundantly for those who are afflicted, your light will shine in the darkness, and your gloom will be like the noon” (Isaiah 58:9-10). We are further called both in Leviticus and by our Lord Jesus Christ to love our neighbors as ourselves. When we turn from this divine will, we as a broken people promote systems that are unjust and inequitable. One manifestation of these injustices is the persistent problem of racism.


The United Methodist Church is committed to understanding and eliminating racism. One generally ignored aspect of this issue in industrial nations is environmental racism. For example, in the United States, people of color are disproportionately affected by toxic contamination due to the production, storage, treatment, and disposal process of hazardous materials and wastes. African American, Hispanic North American, Asian American, Native American, and citizens of developing nations are usually the least able, politically and economically, to oppose the sitings of these facilities.

As a result, their communities have become the dumping grounds for waste with devastating economic and health consequences.

The pervasive problem of environmental racism within the United States first came to light in the early 1980s. The birth of the environmental justice movement can be traced to the historic protest in 1983 in Warren County, North Carolina where over 500 people were arrested for blocking the shipment of toxic waste (PCBs) to a landfill in a predominantly African American county. That same year, a General Accounting Office (GAO, now Government Accountability Office) study concluded “blacks make up the majority of the population in three out of four communities where landfills are located.”

In 1987, the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice issued the landmark report Toxic Wastes and Race. This report, expanding on the GAO findings, established that race—rather than poverty, land value, or home ownership—is the most reliable predictor of proximity to hazardous waste sites in the United States. And in 1992, the National Law Journal study, Unequal Protection, uncovered racial disparities in the enforcement of environmental protection laws. The report highlighted a “racial divide in the way the US government cleans up toxic waste sites and punishes polluters.” According to the report, “white communities see faster action, better results and stiffer penalties than communities where blacks, Hispanics and other minorities live. This unequal protection often occurs whether the community is wealthy or poor.”

These and other reports provided strong empirical evidence of environmental racism.

Among the findings:

1. “The current and future health status of African American, Hispanic, and Native American children in particular continues to fare poorly compared to the rest of the population. Due to the fact that children are so vulnerable to harm, without a political voice and not large players within the world economy, they have historically been swept under the rug and almost forgotten about when it comes to true public health protection.

2. “National Disparities: More than nine million people (9,222,000) are estimated to live in circular host neighborhoods within 3 kilometers of the nation's 413 commercial hazardous waste facilities. More than 5.1 million people of color, including 2.5 million Hispanics or Latinos, 1.8 million African Americans, 616,000 Asians/Pacific Islanders and 62,000 Native Americans live in neighborhoods with one or more commercial hazardous waste facilities.

“Host neighborhoods of commercial hazardous waste facilities are 56 percent people of color whereas non host areas are 30 percent people of color. Percentages of African Americans, Hispanics/Latinos and Asians/Pacific Islanders in host neighborhoods are 1.7, 2.3 and 1.8 times greater (20 percent vs. 12 percent, 27 percent vs. 12 percent, and 6.7 percent vs. 3.6 percent), respectively. Poverty rates in the host neighborhoods are 1.5 times greater than non host areas (18 percent vs. 12 percent).”

3. “EPA: Regional Disparities: Racial disparities for people of color as a whole exist in nine out of 10 US EPA regions (all except Region 3). Disparities in people of color percentages between host neighborhoods and non host Areas are greatest in: Region 1, the Northeast (36 percent vs. 15 percent) • Region 4, the southeast (54 percent vs. 30 percent) • Region 5, the Midwest (53 percent vs. 19 percent) • Region 6, the South (63 percent vs. 42 percent) • and Region 9, the southwest (80 percent vs. 49 percent). For Hispanics, African Americans and Asians/Pacific Islanders, statistically significant disparities exist in the majority or vast majority of EPA regions. The pattern of people of color being especially concentrated in areas where facilities are clustered is also geographically widespread throughout the country.”

4. “African Americans are three times more likely to die from asthma. African American women have the highest asthma mortality rate of all groups, more than 2.5 times higher than Caucasian women. Ethnic differences in asthma prevalence, morbidity and mortality are highly correlated with poverty, urban air quality, indoor allergens, and lack of patient education and inadequate medical care.”

5. “Lead poisoning continues to be the number one environmental health threat to children in the United States, especially poor children, children of color and children living in inner cities. Black children are five times more likely than white children to have lead poisoning. One in seven black children living in older housing has elevated blood lead levels. About 22 percent of African American children and 13 percent of Mexican American children living in pre 1946 housing are lead poisoned, compared with 6 percent of white children living in comparable types of housing. Recent studies suggest that a young person's lead burden is linked to lower IQ, lower high school graduation rates and increased delinquency. Lead poisoning causes about 2 to 3 points of IQ lost for each 10 ug/dl lead level.”

6. Toxic Wastes and Race describe the extent of environmental racism and the consequences of people of color and indigenous communities disproportionately affected by polluted environments. Collectively, the two coal plants on the Navajo reservation release over 365 million pounds of cancer and lung disease-causing pollutants every year. The groundwater is also contaminated as the pollutants leach into the water banks.

The 2007 “Toxic Waste at Twenty” 1987-2007 Report of the United Church of Christ Justice and Witness Ministries Conclusions-most recent report:

“Twenty years after the release of Toxic Wastes and Race, significant racial and socioeconomic disparities persist in the distribution of the nation's commercial hazardous waste facilities. Although the current assessment uses newer methods that better match where people and hazardous waste facilities are located, the conclusions are very much the same as they were in 1987. In fact, people of color are found to be more concentrated around hazardous waste facilities than previously shown.

“Race matters. People of color and persons of low socioeconomic status are still disproportionately impacted and are particularly concentrated in neighborhoods and communities with the greatest number of facilities. Race continues to be an independent predictor of where hazardous wastes are located, and it is a stronger predictor than income, education and other socioeconomic indicators. Indeed, a watershed moment has occurred in the last decade. People of color now comprise a majority in neighborhoods with commercial hazardous waste facilities, and much larger (more than two-thirds) majorities can be found in neighborhoods with clustered facilities. People of color in 2007 are more concentrated in areas with commercial hazardous sites than in 1987. African Americans, Hispanics/Latinos and Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders alike are disproportionately burdened by hazardous wastes in the US.

“Unequal protection places communities of color at special risk. Not only are people of color differentially impacted by toxic wastes and contamination, they can expect different responses from the government when it comes to remediation—as clearly seen in the two case studies in Post-Katrina New Orleans and in Dickson County, Tennessee. Thus, it does not appear that existing environmental, health, and civil rights laws and local land use controls have been adequately applied or adapted to reducing health risks or mitigating various adverse impacts to families living in or near toxic “hot spots.”

“The current environmental protection apparatus is “broken” and needs to be “fixed.” The current environmental protection system fails to provide equal protection to people of color and low-income communities. Various levels of government have been slow to respond to environmental health threats from toxic waste in communities of color.”

Despite the clear evidence and growing awareness, our society's attitude toward the production and disposal of hazardous products is one of “out of sight, out of mind.” But “out of sight, out of mind” is most often where the poor and powerless live and work. These communities have thus become toxic “sacrifice zones.”

The continued pattern of environmental racism represents a serious challenge to the conscience of all Christians. We therefore ask our local churches, conferences, and general agencies to join with other religious bodies and groups in actions to end this form of racism:

1. We request the Council of Bishops to address environmental racism in any formal communication to the denomination concerning racism or the environment.

2. We urge annual conferences, districts, local churches, and general agencies to become more involved with community groups working to end environmental racism.

3. We urge all general program agencies and the General Commission on Religion and Race to:

a. disseminate the “stories” of people and communities affected by environmental racism; and

b. find expertise, build leadership, and develop networks that can help empower people within communities in crisis.

4. We call upon the General Board of Church and Society to:

a. advocate comprehensive legislation that remedies these injustices and adequately protects all citizens and the environment; and

b. develop educational resource programs that help annual conferences, districts, and local churches respond to these concerns; and

c. urge industry to develop industry-wide standards for environmental accounting and auditing procedures similar to those requires for financial accounting.

[Editor's note: Quotations in this resolution are from Toxic
Wastes and Race at Twenty: 1987-2007
. It can be found at]


See Social Principles, ¶ 160, Book of Discipline; Resolution 1023, "Environmental Justice for a Sustainable Future"; and Resolution 3371, "A Charter for Racial Justice Policies in an Interdependent Global Community."

From The Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church - 2012. Copyright © 2012 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Used by permission.