Environmental Racism: A lasting legacy of discrimination

Environmental racism is typically the institutional intersection of economics and racially biased outcomes, which often involves environmental contamination. 

“Through policies like redlining, covenant laws and zoning, people of color couldn’t get federally funded mortgages to be able to move to certain areas,” Said Jessica Crowe, interim chair of the school of sociology. “You still see those effects today and they’re still technically in some areas even though they aren’t legally enforceable.”

Crowe said the racist policies of the past can still impact community members’ ability to take political action, because communities rely on social networks to affect political change. People in non-White communities in the United States are more often removed or kept separate from social networks of political and business leaders.


The city of Carbondale held a memorial dedication to celebrate the workers of the former Koppers railroad tie site on Oct. 17, shining a light on the legacy of environmental racism and its effect on what are often communities of color.

According to an interview done between Melvin “Pepper” Holder, a community leader and activist, and Amelia Blakely, a writer for the nonprofit Pulitzer Center, “Koppers was the main economic driver for Black families to settle in Carbondale.”

The Koppers site was operational from its opening in 1901 to its final closing in 1991, and was situated in the northeast part of town, according to the interview. During this time, the site treated wood with creosote, a distillation of tar from wood or coal used to coat the wood and prevent it from degradation due to exposure to the elements.

Evidence existed as early as 1775 that soot and tar could contribute to cancer development, however the easy availability and affordability of the substance made it popular with the advent of railroads and ancillary industries like railroad tie producers.

Used creosote on the site would be held in a lagoon onsite until it could be recycled. However, the lagoon would flood with large amounts of rain, contaminating the soil and seeping into the groundwater underneath. Due to segregationist redlining policies, for the majority of the plant’s time of operation the only communities affected by the environmental poisoning were the nearby Black communities.

An article published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Health Perspectives in December of 2004 made clear that solving the problem of environmental health hazards must also include an effort to address the lasting racially imposed social conditions.

The article was written by Gilbert C. Gee, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health and Devon C. Payne-Sturges, Associate professor with the Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health. The article is titled “Environmental Health Disparities: A Framework Integrating Psychosocial and Environmental Concepts.”


“The elimination of disparities in environmental health requires attention to both environmental hazards and social conditions,” the article said.

The article said the two major challenges to this involve understanding how social processes can exacerbate environmental issues and understanding why some specific groups experience greater numbers of illnesses and more severe illnesses when compared to other groups.

The article argues the stress of living in disadvantaged communities can weaken the immune system, making members of the community particularly vulnerable to the effects of environmental racism.

“Residential segregation leads to different experiences of community stress, exposure to pollutants and access to community resources,” the article said. “When not countered by resources, stressors may lead to heightened vulnerability to environmental hazards.”

Jessica Crowe, interim chair of the school of Sociology at Southern Illinois University (SIU), said the echoes of racism and racist policies are still visible if you know where to look.

Crowe said another good example of the ways communities affected by environmental racism can push back against the issues they face is that of Roxbury, a community in Boston, Mass.

From 1963 to 1983, the neighborhood lost more than two thousand homes due to an outbreak of fires during a period of time when White populations were leaving the community, and lots were abandoned and undeveloped.

The town had a predominantly Black population, and local companies began dumping industrial waste into the abandoned lots. This contaminated the groundwater in the area, sparking an effort to prevent the illegal dumping, and bring attention to the matter.

“It took them years, but they formed a community group, and started getting word out about this issue they were having,” Crowe said. “They started making contacts with people who did have some power and resources.”

Crowe said the first efforts came from a Boston city movement primarily led by White, upper-middle class landowners called the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA). The original plan put forward for the renovation of the area did not involve community members or leaders. Following community backlash, the community organized its members by going door to door to form a group known as the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI).

The DSNI got press coverage on the problem through the Boston Globe, and put pressure on the mayor to acknowledge the problem, Crowe said. The group used the publicity to gather additional support, creating additional efforts to clean up the dumping sites. The support allowed the community to push for the election of a mayor who was amenable to reform, and sympathetic to their cause.

Crowe said this rise to prominence and political support led to the group becoming the first community-based nonprofit organization in American history to use eminent domain to seize undeveloped land. DSNI filled these lots with low cost homes and placed them under a land trust which kept prices from inflating.

“This is a community that is pretty poor, and doesn’t have a lot of resources,” Crowe said. “But they had leaders who took control, and formed a community group. Then, they built and used their social capital to build a network with people outside the community that could help them, and they were quite successful.”

Crowe said the uphill battle of fighting against institutional discrimination can be discouraging, and progress can be stalled or reversed at times. However, constant battling has led to institutional change in the last seven decades.

“It’s slow moving, and it’s not to say those gains can’t be undone,” Crowe said. “So it’s a constant battle that one can’t let up on.”

Staff reporter William Box can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @William17455137. To stay up to date with all your southern Illinois news, follow the Daily Egyptian on Facebook and Twitter.