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The History of Environmental Justice in Five Minutes

How communities of color facing the brunt of pollution launched the movement for a healthy place to live, work, and play—and where it’s headed.

Championed primarily by African-Americans, Latinos, Asians and Pacific Islanders, and Native Americans, the environmental justice movement addresses a statistical fact: People who live, work, and play in America's most polluted environments are commonly people of color and the poor. Environmental justice advocates have shown that this is no accident. Communities of color, which are often also low-income, are routinely targeted to host facilities that have negative environmental impacts—say, a landfill, dirty industrial plant, or truck depot. The statistics provide clear evidence of what the movement rightly calls "environmental racism." Communities of color have been battling this injustice for decades.

To understand environmental justice, it's worth looking back at the events that helped launch the movement in the first place. Many point to 1982, when North Carolina had announced a plan to move soil contaminated with PCBs from alongside 210 miles of the state's roadsides to a landfill located in Warren County, one of only a few counties in the state with a majority black population. The decision triggered a wave of protests, one of which resulted in the arrest of a U.S. congressman and dozens of other activists who tried to block the PCB-laden trucks at the entrance to the landfill.

Protestors led by Reverend Joseph Lowery march against a proposed toxic waste dump in Warren County, North Carolina, in October 1982. Bettman/Getty Images


Environmental advocates lost that battle—North Carolina ultimately buried the PCBs in Warren County—but the controversy crystallized the idea that the nation's environmental problems disproportionately burden its low-income people of color.

Other communities of color had organized to oppose environmental threats before Warren County. In the early 1960s, Latino farm workers led by Cesar Chavez fought for workplace rights, including protection from harmful pesticides in the farm fields of California's San Joaquin Valley. In 1967, African-American students took to the streets of Houston to oppose a city garbage dump in their community that had claimed the life of a child. In 1968, residents of West Harlem, in New York City, fought unsuccessfully against a sewage treatment plant in their community. But the Warren County protests marked the first instance of an environmental protest by people of color garnering widespread national attention.

The environmental justice movement's power only multiplied when the data began to roll in. At the behest of Congressman Walter Fauntroy, the Washington, D.C., delegate arrested during the North Carolina protests, the General Accounting Office in 1983 confirmed that hazardous waste sites in three southeastern states were disproportionately located near black communities. Four years later, the United Church of Christ produced a landmark report showing that three out of five Latino and black Americans lived near a toxic waste site.

By 1990, leaders of the growing environmental justice movement began to look for allies among traditional, primarily white environmental organizations. These were groups that had long fought to protect wilderness, endangered species, clean air and water. But historically, they had little or no involvement in the environmental struggles of people of color under constant assault from neighboring hazardous waste landfills, waste transfer stations, incinerators, garbage dumps, diesel bus and truck garages, auto body shops, smokestack industries, industrial hog and chicken processors, oil refineries, chemical manufacturers, and radioactive waste storage areas.

That year, several environmental justice leaders signed a widely publicized letter to the "Big 10" environmental groups, including NRDC, accusing them of racial bias in policy development, hiring, and the makeup of their boards, and challenging them to address toxic contamination in the communities and workplaces of people of color and the poor. As a result, some mainstream environmental organizations developed their first environmental justice initiatives, added people of color to staff, and resolved to take environmental justice into account when making policy decisions.

Even still, according to a 2007 survey, nearly 90 percent of environmentalists were non-Hispanic whites, even though that group made up just 62 percent of the U.S. population at the time. This lack of representation is problematic now and could become even more so. The majority of American babies are now born to people of color. By 2044, non-Hispanic whites will constitute less than half of the U.S. population.

The simple passage of time will likely diversify the environmental movement, if only by attrition. The question is whether the broader movement will adjust quickly enough to maintain its relevance and vitality. As the history of the environmental justice movement has already proved, progress can be made with relentless community advocacy backed by the law and solid science. NRDC is proud to partner with environmental justice communities and grassroots organizations around the country, often contributing technical resources and legal and policy tools to communities' ongoing fight for healthy, vibrant neighborhoods.

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