Combating Environmental Racism as a means to Mitigate Climate Change

Typically found in communities of color and low-income communities, industrial polluters such as landfills, trash incinerators, coal plants, and toxic waste dumps affect the well-being of residents. Their health is also often compromised due to a lack of access to healthy foods in their neighborhoods. Those who work on environmental justice issues refer to these inequities as environmental racism.

“Environmental Racism.” Food Empowerment Project.

Environmental racism permeates cities and neighborhoods across the United States, so why isn’t it at the forefront of climate change mitigation discussions?

In Portland, the most notable case of environmental injustice is the Vanport flood of 1948. Vanport, a small city between Vancouver, Washington and Portland, Oregon, was home to a very large and prospering African-American community when it was established in 1942. The city, hastily and carelessly constructed in one hundred and ten days, was meant to be temporary public housing. The temporary part, unbeknownst to its residents. To put things into perspective, the location of the city was built on very unsafe, clearly uninhabitable land. However, that didn’t halt production or deter people from it. Portland, now considered the “whitest metropolitan city in America”, has had a long and ugly history of overt, blatant racism.

Portland had long had a reputation as what one national black leader called ‘the most prejudiced (city) in the west,’ a place where African Americans were limited to work on the railroads or as domestics in homes and hotels. As a result, only 2,000 blacks lived in the city just before the war. In the rest of Oregon, the population was very small. This was due in part to Oregon’s first constitution, which prohibited blacks from even entering the state, and to the activities of the Ku Klux Klan, which in the 1920s had up to 200,000 Oregon members.

“The Vanport Flood.” The Oregon History Project.

So, white Portland residents were definitely pleased by the mess unraveling before them. Because of the Pacific Northwest weather, coupled with the specific location of Vanport, city officials living their knew the flood was coming. They knew it was coming and high tailed it out of there faster than you could say “racist.”  

Pictured in the above photo is my great grandfather, holding another one of our relatives as they evacuated Vanport.

Because of the prevalent racism in Portland, and the hazardously constructed city, the reality in which Vanport residents found themselves in was more than ideal for those who built it in the first place.

This topic of environmental racism in Portland hits especially close to home for me, and I can see it everyday. The lack of positive investment being put forth into low-income communities of color is apparent, and certainly not being addressed as a concerning issue.

For Indigenous communities, reclaiming the environment and the fight for land preservation has been a long and hard battle. Not only have they fought to keep their land, now they are fighting to keep it waste free. And even though the term environmental racism has only existed for a few decades, their efforts against the disastrous system can be traced all the way back to white colonial America.

From 1872-1873 the US military went on a targeted campaign to kill millions of buffalo in order to starve Indigenous populations and force them to comply with the newly developing reservation systems. These plots of reservation lands displaced Indigenous communities from their ancestral homes and were often inhospitable environments without easy access to water, food, and other natural resources that made self-sufficiency virtually impossible.

“How Environmental Racism Affects Indigenous Communities in the USA.” Wear Your Voice, 27 Sept. 2017,

In the present day, the implementation of pipelines on Indigenous land has also been detrimental to the population. In 2016, construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline destroying the Standing Rock Sioux sacred tribal burial grounds sparked a nationwide protest with international support. The concern, other than the fact that their sacred land was being destroyed, was that the pipeline would directly affect their access to drinking water. Similarly, the vocal concern that the tribe expressed was ignored and the protests that followed were received with major push back.

Through all of this injustice, there is one common thread: communities of color have immensely suffered at the hands of white supremacy and negligent corporations. Implicit, and explicit, biases held by powerful white people have resulted in the genocide of Indigenous people as well as the collapse of African-American communities and neighborhoods. However, out of this injustice communities of color have emerged as vocal advocates for equitable and safe environmental practices. They have paved the way for how we as a society approach environmental justice, and are the pioneers of this necessary movement.

Want to learn more about environmental justice activism?

Here’s a list of hard-working activists and organizations striving to decolonize, dismantle, and educate for change:

Thank you!

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