Rallying for Environmental Justice

A recent Environmental Protection Agency report (2021) sounded the alarms on the disproportionate effects of climate change on communities of color and of low-income backgrounds. But for scholars investigating these effects (i.e., environmental racism) the EPA’s report is not shocking. We’ve known that poor communities of color are disproportionately subjected to more pollution than richer white communities (Tessem et al., 2019). We have also known for decades that poor communities of color are the dumping grounds of hazardous waste sites (McGurty, 1997; Bullard, 2008). Even when communities of color afront a legal battle to prevent the construction of hazardous waste site in their neighborhoods, the sites are still built. The 1982 protests in Warren County, North Carolina is a good example of what happens when the legal system fails to uphold environmental justice. The state of North Carolina was court-ordered to construct a hazardous waste site to eliminate soil contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB)—manufactured chemicals that are harmful to humans and the environment. Warren County, a predominately poor and African American county, was chosen as the siting of the waste facility. After losing the court battle, residents of Warren County mobilized to prevent the construction of the site. Protesters marched to show their frustration with environmental injustices, while others literally put their bodies in front of construction trucks. Alas, the protests and demonstrations did not prevent the state officials from building the hazardous waste site in Warren County. Instead, the protests became the impetus for the environmental justice movement.

And yet, communities of color continue to be disproportionately subjected to pollution and hazardous materials. Tessum and colleagues (2021) conducted a study to investigate the extent to which major sources of emissions (e.g., industrial, construction) expose communities of color to a fine air pollutant called PM2.5. They find that communities of color are significantly disproportionately exposed to more toxins than white communities. The researchers further find that these effects remain significant when looking at individual state data, when looking at differences between rural and urban areas, income levels, and average exposure levels. Moreover, Tessum et al (2021) find similar major sources of toxic emissions contribute to the disparities in exposure to PM2.5 among communities of color. Specifically, they find that the largest sources of emissions of pollutants disproportionately emitting more toxins across communities of color are industrial, light duty gas vehicles, construction, and heavy duty gas vehicles—in that order.

No doubt that these environmental injustices have health consequences. Take for instance recent news reports out of Houston, Texas. It is a case that resembles the Warren County protests. According to a Texas Tribune news article (Douglas, 2021), a railroad yard facility in the 1970s and 80s was using a toxic chemical called creosote for wood preservation that spilled into the soil and the groundwater of the surrounding predominately Black community of Fifth Ward in Houston. Residents of Fifth Ward began developing cancer at such high rates because of the toxic groundwater that the community was identified as a cancer cluster by the state of Texas. Community members from Fifth Ward, like members of Warren County, first sought to mount a legal battle. In 2000, Community members sued the owners of the railyard claiming that working at the railyard and exposure to its toxins led to the high rates of cancer among Fifth Ward residents. However, the court ruled in favor of the railyard arguing that there were not any causal links from a specific toxin to cancer.

Repeated systemic failures like the ones from Warren County and Fifth Ward are infuriating. But it is going to take more than anger to rally for environmental justice. Indeed, research on collective action suggests that anger is only one of two fundamental pathways towards collective action (van Zomeren et al., 2012). The other pathway is group efficacy, that is, the extent to which members of a collective movement think that their ingroup can in fact remedy injustices. In other words, it is not enough to know about an injustice toward your group in order to engage in collective action, the extent to which you are upset at the injustice and have a sense that you and your group can do something about it are also important factors that contribute to collective action. The former factor is called the emotional-focused pathway and is primarily based on group anger, while the latter is called the problem-focused pathway and it is primarily based on group efficacy. When assessing the dual pathway model on collective action relative to the climate change crisis, van Zomeren, Spears, and Leach (2010) found that individuals with a greater sense of group efficacy, compared to a rather high sense of individual self-efficacy, were more likely to engage in environmental collective action tendencies (e.g., sign a petition). Moreover, the researchers found that fear rather than anger was a better predictor of collective action tendencies. However, this result was expected given that the researchers did not intend to evoke anger because their manipulation of the climate change crisis lacked a direct agent. Nevertheless, these findings suggest that anger and efficacy can mobilize people to rally for environmental justice, but fighting environmental racism is going to require a larger coalition.

There is evidence to suggest that two distinct groups can be included in a broader group identity that encompasses both groups (Gaertner et. al., 1993). Consider Craig and Richeson (2012) who sought to investigate the role perceived discrimination plays in intra-minority intergroup relations. Specifically, the researchers presented individuals of a racial/ethnic minority group with a perceived discriminatory act against their own group and then questioned individuals about their attitudes towards other minority groups. Across five studies, Craig and Richeson found that a perceived act of discrimination against an individual’s specific racial and ethnic minority group may lead for that individual to espouse more positive attitudes (studies 2-5) and a sense of common fate (study 1) with other racial and ethnic minority groups. The researchers reason that perceived discrimination may enhance intra-minority intergroup relations because it creates a common disadvantaged racial minority group identity. Furthermore, this common disadvantaged racial minority group identity allows for minority groups (e.g., Blacks and Latinos) to see their similarities, while still preserving their differences. Essentially, highlighting shared experiences of discrimination can foster positive intra-minority intergroup relations across different racial and ethnic identities. Research provides support for the model by showing that perceived discrimination may facilitate the creation of a larger common identity by increasing a sense of perceived similarities among one’s own disadvantaged group and another disadvantaged group (Craig & Richeson, 2012; Cortland et al., 2017). That is, a dual identity may emerge in the face of an injustice, which subsequently may lead to solidarity across dimensions of racial and ethnic identities and social identities (c.f. Cortland et al., 2017).

Relative to communities of color, recent research demonstrates that people of color can and do coalesce into a superordinate and encompassing group identity—all the while maintaining membership in their idiosyncratic racial/ethnic identity—called people of color identity (PoC ID; Pérez, 2021). For example, a nonwhite individual may see themselves as a member of the Asian American minority group, but also as a person of color pertaining to a broader, more encompassing, group identity. In three parallel nationally representative surveys, Pérez (2021) found that PoC ID is in fact categorically distinct from other identities, allowing for the possibility of dual membership. Moreover, an individual’s sense of person of color identity is based on a high end and low end of a continuum, such that it can be activated or suppressed depending on prompts. Specifically, when a nonwhite individual’s idiosyncratic racial and ethnic identity is heightened, they loosen their membership to the larger PoC ID. Conversely, if instances of shared discrimination are made salient, nonwhite’s PoC ID membership becomes heartier. In fact, the extent to which an individual identifies with their person of color identity is associated with outcomes relative to public policy support. Individuals on the high end of the continuum (those who identify strongly with PoC ID) demonstrate increased support for policies promoting the wellbeing of racial and ethnic minorities, even if the primary beneficiary is not an individual’s own racial and ethnic minority group.

In closing, a plethora of research suggests that communities of color are still subjected to environmental injustices (Tessum et al., 2021) and that people of color can mobilize into a larger, superordinate group identity (Craig & Richeson, 2012; Cortland et al, 2017; Pérez, 2021)—perhaps riven by a sense of anger and efficacy—with the goal of eliminating a shared perceived injustice (van Zomeren, Spears & Leach, 2010). We saw these psychological mechanisms play out in the Warren County protests and in the outcries from Fifth Ward, Houston, as well as mainstream occurrences like Flint, Michigan and lesser known ones like the lack of water in Jackson, Mississippi (Perry et al., 2021). The point here is that while communities of color continue to be subjected to disproportionate environmental injustices, people of color will continue to rally among themselves for environmental justice.


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