Up to the late 1960s, racism was defined as a doctrine, dogma, ideology, or set of beliefs. The central theme of this doctrine was that race determined culture. Some cultures were deemed superior to others; therefore, some races were superior and others inferior. During the 1960s the definition of racism was expanded to include the practices, attitudes, and beliefs that supported the notion of racial superiority and inferiority. Such beliefs and practices produced racial discrimination.
However, researchers argue that to limit the understanding of racism to behavior misses important aspects of racism. Racism is also a system of advantages or privileges based on race. Racism is thus more fully understood if one sees it as the execution of prejudice and discrimination coupled with power, privilege, and institutional support. It is aided and maintained by legal, penal, educational, religious, and business institutions, to name a few.
Environmental racism is an important concept that provided a label for some of the environmental activism occurring in minority and low-income communities. In particular, it links racism with environmental actions, experiences, and outcomes.
The term environmental racism, or environmental discrimination, is used to describe racial disparities in a range of actions and processes, including but not limited to the:
- increased likelihood of being exposed to environmental hazards
- disproportionate negative impacts of environmental processes
- disproportionate negative impacts of environmental policies, for example, the differential rate of cleanup of environmental contaminants in communities composed of different racial groups
- deliberate targeting and siting of noxious facilities in particular communities
- environmental blackmail that arises when workers are coerced or forced to choose between hazardous jobs and environmental standards
- segregation of ethnic minority workers in dangerous and dirty jobs
- lack of access to or inadequate maintenance of environmental amenities such as parks and playgrounds
- inequality in environmental services such as garbage removal and transportation
During the 1980s people of color began organizing environmental campaigns to prevent the poisoning of farm workers with pesticides; lead poisoning in inner-city children; the siting of noxious facilities—landfills, polluting industrial complexes, and incinerators—in communities like Warren County, North Carolina; Altgeld Gardens (the "toxic doughnut" on Chicago's South-side); Convent, Louisiana's "cancer alley;" and Kettleman City, California. Activists also demanded the cleanup of communities like Triana, Alabama that had been contaminated with DDT (dichlorodiphenyl trichloroethane), and the monitoring or closure of facilities like Emelle, Alabama's commercial hazardous landfill (the largest of its kind in the United States). In addition, they questioned the placement of large numbers of nuclear waste dumps on Native-American reservations.
Meanwhile, activists, scholars, and policymakers began investigating the link between race and exposure to environmental hazards. Two influential studies exploring this relationship—one by the U.S. General Accounting Office (USGAO) and the other by the United Church of Christ (UCC)—found that African-Americans and other people of color were more likely to live close to hazardous waste sites and facilities than whites. The study by the UCC was particularly important because it made an explicit connection between race and the increased likelihood of being exposed to hazardous wastes. The studies also made the issue of race and the environment more salient in communities of color.