Addressing Systemic Racism Through Environmental Justice

Senator Patty Murray
5 min readAug 28, 2020

Dr. Robert Bullard, known widely as the “father of environmental justice,” describes our environment as “where we live, work, play, worship, and go to school as well as the physical and natural world.” The nationwide protests following the murder of George Floyd have not just highlighted the pervasiveness of police brutality, but have made clear how deeply-rooted systemic racism is in our nation and its myriad impacts on people of color — including on our environment and natural resources. In order to fully upend systemic racism, we must follow the lead of Black organizers and other people of color who have been on the front lines of these fights for decades, and confront the history and continued presence of racism both in our environment and in our fight against the climate crisis.

As I’ve been listening to civil rights leaders and people of color on the ground in Washington state over the summer, they’ve reiterated that racial injustice and systemic racism don’t only exist in laws, policies and institutions — they manifest in the ways we’ve damaged our air, water, land and food, and in who suffers most from environmental harm and climate change. We see it in Tribes’ increasingly limited access to clean water and traditional food sources. We see it in the lasting legacy of redlining, which in cities like Seattle has limited pathways to secure, environmentally-safe homes and lasting wealth for people of color. And we see it in how we’ve imagined transportation, as highways have carved up and obliterated long standing neighborhoods of color and increased vehicle emissions and pollution that have led to lung cancer, stroke, and heart disease in those communities.

Federal lawmakers have a responsibility to acknowledge that in all of these examples, and more, the federal government has played a role in allowing, and often reinforcing, environmentally-racist policies and outcomes — whether through unequal enforcement of existing environmental laws that disproportionately harm communities of color, enacting racist housing rules, or facilitating urban planning that disregarded the health and wellbeing of people of color. If we are to truly meet the current historic moment and move our nation toward a “more perfect union,” public officials also have an obligation to address the environmental harm people and communities of color have long faced, and actively dismantle systems that perpetuate structural, environmental racism.

While we’ve made progress on environmental priorities before, we’ve too often failed to center our solutions in the experiences and concerns of the people most affected by environmental harm. Previous federal efforts ranging from implementing the Clean Power Plan, to protecting federal lands, to investments in housing and transportation grant programs that help protect our planet, have aided vital conservation efforts and reduced pollution and emissions that contribute to climate change. But too often solutions like these aren’t designed to specifically address the disproportionate environmental harm communities of color face, to dismantle the conditions that allow environmental racism to thrive, or to prioritize equity. That must change.

Moving forward, our federal government must implement environmental policy with the needs of people of color at the center, and seek to directly remedy the historical inequities that exist in our environments. One way we can start is by ensuring people of color are leading and staffing the agencies responsible for enacting federal environmental policy, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Energy, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Justice, among others. We must also push specific environmental issues harming those communities to the front of the line in our federal policymaking: for instance, in Washington state, we must prioritize efforts to restore polluted salmon habitats, which have directly and disproportionately impacted Tribes who rely on salmon as a traditional food source. A first step toward realizing this goal would be strengthening the National Environmental Policy Act to ensure that the communities closest to these matters have a genuine and unencumbered seat at the table to engage their government substantively.

Additionally, we should adjust existing federal programs — and develop new ones — to center the environmental needs and concerns of communities of color in our federal policymaking. For instance, we know we must take aggressive action to curtail emissions and combat climate change in our country and around the world, and goals such as achieving carbon neutrality will have widespread benefits across our society. But we would be remiss if our priorities and the solutions we develop to reduce carbon emissions don’t also specifically address the disproportionate harm that climate change — and many environmental policy decisions made as a result — have had on communities of color. Putting the goals of reducing vehicle emissions, which harm people of color more than white people, and modernizing our crumbling water infrastructure, the current state of which has led to people of color in Washington state and across the country paying more for what should be a basic human right, should be at the top of our list — and those are just a couple examples. Additionally, by enforcing existing environmental justice policies and installing similar measures across government, we can ensure the concerns of people of color are a primary consideration in environmental policymaking.

Finally, the federal government must take deliberate action to dismantle the racist systems within our environments that reinforce the inequity that people of color in Washington state and across the country live with every day. For example, owning a home is one of the strongest ways to create lasting wealth for families in this country, and during the on-going pandemic we’ve seen how critical safe, secure housing is to protecting public health. However, many people of color, especially Black people, are still dealing with the lasting economic and health impacts of living in poorer, more environmentally-perilous areas: the practice of redlining, and the ways in which it devalued property in neighborhoods where people of color lived, was and is an integral factor in the racial disparities in the distribution of hazardous sites and wastes. Reversing the legacy of this and other racist housing policies will help Black and brown families access safe homes, protect their health, and build wealth.

These are just some the steps that I believe our federal government should take to address the legacy of environmental racism in our country. As a voice in the United States Senate, I am committed to ensuring our federal government is a force for environmental justice, and that justice is a primary consideration when we think about the water we drink, the air we breathe, where we live, how we get around, and everything else that makes up our environment. And I hope that every Washingtonian and every person in our country will join me in committing to environmental justice as we strive to create a more just and equal planet for all of us.

Additional Resources

Senate Democrats’ Climate Committee: Report on Climate Action — READ HERE

New York Times: How Decades of Racist Housing Policy Left Neighborhoods Sweltering — READ HERE

United Church of Christ: Toxic Wastes and Race and Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty –READ HERE

The Guardian: Roads to nowhere: how infrastructure built on American inequality –READ HERE

Front and Centered: The Disproportionate Impacts of Climate Change on Communities of Color in Washington State — READ HERE