Excerpted From: Robert L. Bentlyewski and Mina Juhn, Race, Place, and Pollution: the Deep Roots of Environmental Racism, 89 Fordham Law Review Online 74 (2021) (99 Footnotes) (Full Document)


BentlyewskiJuhnPollution in America's air is disproportionately created by white Americans and breathed by Americans of color. As for the land and water, race is the single most significant variable in determining whether a person lives near a toxic site--significantly more so than income and other socioeconomic indicators. This disparity is neither coincidental nor fleeting. Rather, it is the product of deeply entrenched environmental racism. Sociologist Robert Bullard defines environmental racism as the aligning of public environmental policy and industry practices “to provide benefits for whites while shifting industry costs to people of color.”

Such discriminatory misallocation can be seen across the United States. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) incentivized the United States and Mexico to relocate heavy industry to the border region, but neither country has enforced NAFTA's environmental regulations to protect the local Latinx population from highly toxic drinking water contamination. A similar misallocation took place when the Ford Motor Company dumped unthinkable amounts of paint sludge, lead, and arsenic near its plant in Mahwah, New Jersey, and then built homes on the contaminated land and sold them to local Native Americans. The pollution has caused the members of the Ramapough Mountain Indian Tribe who moved in to suffer from ailments ranging from persistent rashes to cancer at astounding rates, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) opened and closed a cleanup operation without putting a dent in the danger. This Comment seeks to demonstrate that such injustices form more than a mere pattern; instead they are the product of a veritable system of racial exploitation that has been centuries in the making. This Comment provides a broad overview of the systemic inequality's creation and perpetuation with a focus on legal and extralegal contributing forces. Such environmental racism is systematized through a nationwide and often legally enforced process of: (1) limiting where communities of color can form and live, (2) siting environmental hazards near those communities, and (3) depriving them of sufficient means to challenge illegal or unconstitutional environmental practices.

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As in many facets of American society, the effects of racist or otherwise discriminatory laws, policies, and practices are evident in the physical environments in which many Americans of color reside. Discriminatory allocations of resources and liabilities, restrictions on mobility, zoning regulations, and industry practices have repeatedly left communities of color disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards. With polluters often either encouraged or explicitly directed to locate near communities of color, already vulnerable populations have been forced to endure unconscionable health consequences.

Environmental racism is pervasive and generational, but efforts by residents and advocates to call attention to such injustice have not been in vain. Recent administrative changes and legislative proposals on the federal level may be indicative of a meaningful recommitment to rectifying EJ issues. These developments are the result of--and point to the continued need for-- consistent advocacy and agitation by and on the behalf of those who live with the effects of racism deeply embedded into their physical environments. Race cannot continue to dictate the safety of the air Americans breathe and the water they drink. Lawmakers and regulators--long aware of these unjust discrepancies--must work quickly to reverse the effects of systemic environmental racism.

J.D. Candidate, 2022, Fordham University School of Law; M.P.A., 2019, The City College of New York; B.A., 2014, Brown University.

J.D. Candidate, 2022, Fordham University School of Law; B.A. 2013, Wellesley College.