The term environmental racism communicates the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on communities of color.

For decades organizers in the environmental justice movement have been fighting to push back against industry pollution in their communities and corporate lobbying which actively silences the voices of people of color. Environmental justice work is inherently political, because it seeks to dismantle politically-perpetuated socio-economic structures which disenfranchise communities of color, abuse their labor and then dump industrial externalities onto them. Organizers are fighting to dismantle economic systems which allow industry CEOs to degrade labor working conditions and wellbeing to increase corporate profit, and lobby for the cutting away of union power, labor rights, and environmental protections. The movement recognizes that the United States’ economy has always been predicated on the exploitation of people of color, and that frontline communities must be empowered to lead and dictate the terms of a new equitable society. The movement also seeks to dismantle systemic racism, the term which describes politically perpetuated racial discrepancies in, among other things, where you can afford to live, how safe your living and working environments are, how much are you paid, whether or not you have access to health care and a good education, and whether you have a seat at the table in making policies for your community.

Food justice is environmental justice and acts to combat the same racist systems of oppression.

“Racism—the systemic mistreatment of people based on their ethnicity or skin color—affects all aspects of our society, including our food system.
While racism has no biological foundation, the socio-economic and political structures that dispossess and exploit people of color, coupled with widespread misinformation about race, cultures and ethnic groups, make racism one of the more intractable injustices causing poverty, hunger and malnutrition. Racism is not simply attitudinal prejudice or individual acts, but an historical legacy that privileges one group of people over others.”

A few examples of environmental racism in the food system which organizers have been pushing back against

  • People of color do most of the hard labor of cultivating, harvesting, and processing food in the United States today. Workers on industrial farms are exposed to toxic pesticides which can cause birth defects, impair lung health, and cause cancer (source). CAFOs (industrial swine facilities) are disproportionately located in communities of color. Run off from hog waste lagoons leaches toxic air and water pollutants into these communities (source). Industrial farms leach pesticides, animal waste, and fertilizer byproducts into surrounding farmworker communities’ groundwater sources.
  • Farmworkers of color are paid poverty wages, experience twice the level of wage theft as white workers, and experience higher levels of food insecurity (source). White food workers make on average $25,024 annually while workers of color make only $19,349 (source). White workers hold 75% of managerial positions in the food system while Latinx folks hold 13% and Black and Asian workers 6.5% (source).
  • As Eric Holt-Giménez and Breeze Harper state, “The resulting poverty from poorly paid jobs is racialized: Of the 47 million people living below the poverty line in the United States, less than 10% are white. African-Americans make up 27% of the poor, Native Americans 26%, Latinos 25.6% and Asian-Americans 11.7%. Poverty results in high levels of food insecurity for people of color. Of the 50 million food insecure people in the US 10.6% are white, 26.1% are Black, 23.7% are Latino and 23% are Native American. Even restaurant workers—an occupation dominated by people of color (who should have access to all the food they need)—are twice as food insecure as the national average.” (source).

Fighters on the frontlines

Organizers with the National Black Food and Justice Alliance, source:
Salinas farmworkers march to protest immigration raids. Photo by: David Bacon

Sources + more reads

[1] Maria C. Mirabelli, Steve Wing, Stephen W. Marshall, and Timothy C. Wilcosky, “Race, Poverty, and Potential Exposure of Middle-School Students to Air Emissions from Confined Swine Feeding Operations,” n.d., (12/4/10)

(Under the Feet of Jesus)

Food justice and racism in the food system:

the EPA confirms environmental racism is real: