Exploring Environmental Racism and the Environmental Justice Movement

Sarah Thomson
Ph.D. Student, Teaching & Teacher Education
University of Michigan

Course: U.S. History, Civics, or Environmental Science
Syllabus Section: Social and Political Movements
Audience: Secondary Students

Background Information


The idea of environmental justice is a well-founded philosophy, despite its seemingly recent emergence as one tenet of various social movements. Rooted firmly in the American Civil Rights movement, environmental justice arose from the fact that low-income groups, especially people of color, bear the greatest burden of environmental degradation. For example, these individuals may be exposed to unsafe levels of air or water pollution; they may live near toxic waste sites; their land may be subject to strip mining, chemical dumping, and other exploitive practices that harm the natural environment and negatively impact the human populations living nearby. The modern American environmental justice movement emerged around 1982 in Warren County, North Carolina, over illegal PCB (polychlorinated biphenyls) dumping in a predominantly African American community. This event helped to coin the term environmental racism.

In the United States, the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in 1991 produced seventeen "Principles of Environmental Justice" that guide this movement. These principles, in addition to President Clinton's Executive Order on Environmental Justice, which declared environmental racism a violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, form a basic theoretical framework: everyone has a right to be protected from environmental degradation, and that disproportionate impact must be redressed (Bullard 2005). Since the modern environmental justice movement first gained prominence in the United States, countries around the world, particularly so-called developing nations, used the American principles and framework as a model upon which to build their own movements. In some countries, environmental justice is also founded on the constitutional rights to equal resource access and basic service provision. In those countries, environmental justice is about how benefits are distributed and allocated. Ideas about the best means of achieving these objectives continue to evolve.

This lesson will explore the underlying causes of environmental racism, or acts of environmental injustice, by examining different case studies from the U.S. and other countries. Through these case studies, students will analyze the effectiveness of each attempt to combat environmental racism, whilst simultaneously generating their own solutions to such problems.

Scope and Sequence

This lesson is appropriate for a secondary audience, but could be adapted for use in undergraduate Environmental Studies or African American Studies courses. The lesson is intended to take up two or three 60-minute class periods.


At the end of this lesson, students will be able to:

  1. Explain the concept of environmental racism, and how it applies to the modern environmental justice movement.
  2. Cite examples of environmental racism in the United States and other countries.
  3. Draw conclusions about why communities of color are disproportionately affected by environmental degradation, and propose potential solutions.
  4. Evaluate the effectiveness of past and present environmental justice initiatives.


Common Core Standards

This lesson aligns with the following Common Core Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects in grades 11 and 12:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.7 Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.WHST.11-12.7 Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question) or solve a problem; narrow or broaden the inquiry when appropriate; synthesize multiple sources on the subject, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.

Essential Questions

  1. What are the underlying causes of environmental racism?
  2. How does environmental racism manifest itself in different communities?
  3. How can we redress the inequalities perpetuated by environmental racism?
  4. Some contend that humans are entitled to certain environmental rights, such as protection from environmental degradation and environmental racism. Proponents argue that these "rights" to clean air, clean water, health, and safety are necessary to maintain a person's inherent dignity. How then should governments protect and guarantee these rights?

Instructional Procedures

Begin with a warm-up activity. If the students have Internet access, direct them to Atlanta's High Museum of Art website, where they will look at a series of images from the exhibit Revisiting the South: Richard Misrach's Cancer Alley. Alternatively, project or print out copies of the images for each student. Give them five to ten minutes to examine each image carefully and respond to the following reflection questions:

  • How would you describe the mood of these images? Brainstorm a list of at least five descriptive adjectives.
  • What does the exhibit's title, "Cancer Alley," denote? How is the title related to what you see in each image?
  • Given what you know about the politics of the South, why do you think so many large chemical companies are based in this part of Louisiana?

Discuss the questions as a class and introduce the concept of environmental racism. Ask students to consider whether the location of 156 industrial facilities in the predominantly African-American "Cancer Alley" corridor is an act of environmental injustice. To build background on this topic, direct students to read Environmental Racism: An Interpretation. In addition, consider watching an interview with Clark Atlanta University's Dr. Robert Bullard, considered by many to be the "father" of the modern environmental justice movement.

Explain that in order to evaluate the extent to which environmental racism exists, the class will investigate a series of case studies and look for patterns between each. Divide the class into five different research teams. Explain that each team will research a different environmental racism case study, and then present their findings to the rest of the class. Not surprisingly, there are many documented examples of environmental racism. As an instructor, feel free to add to this list of suggested case studies and corresponding resources. The University of Michigan provides a detailed list of domestic and international case studies here.

Case Study 1: Shintech PVC in Convent, Louisiana
Suggested Resources for Research:


Case Study 2: Toxic Waste in Warren County, North Carolina
Suggested Resources for Research:


Case Study 3: Shell Oil & the Ogoni people of Nigeria
Suggested Resources for Research:


Case Study 4: The Navajo, the Hopi, and the Black Mesa Coal Mine
Suggested Resources for Research:


Case Study 5: Toxic Chemicals in South Africa's Townships
Suggested Resources for Research:


Students will explore the resources provided to learn about their assigned case study. They should record their research findings in a graphic organizer that allows them to easily compare and contrast the case studies. Following is an example of such a graphic organizer:

Case study name Key stakeholders The problem Important facts about the community Outcome(s) Were efforts to solve the problem effective?


Shintech PVC in Convent, Louisiana


Toxic Waste in Warren County, North Carolina


Shell Oil and the Ogoni People in Nigeria


The Navajo, Hopi, and the Black Mesa Coal Mine


Toxic Chemicals in South Africa's Townships



On the second or third day of this lesson, students will present their findings. As each group presents, the other students should record information about each case study in the graphic organizer. As a class, discuss similarities and differences between each case study. Which community experienced the most egregious violation of their rights? Which community experienced the most successful outcome?

Re-display the lesson's Essential Questions, and ask students to formulate answers to each, based on the evidence gathered from the case study research project.

Extension Activities

First Option: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights ensures certain social and economic rights, under Article 25, that are routinely infringed upon in cases of environmental racism. Countries like South Africa have gone so far as to explicitly list environmental rights in their Constitution. Ask students to compare the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the South African Constitution, and U.S. Constitution. Invite students to draft a White House petition requesting an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to include protection from environmental degradation.

Second Option: Encourage students to investigate a local, potential case of environmental injustice. They can collect data about the socio-economic and racial makeup of the surrounding area, and compare it with the geographic location of toxic waste sites. This information should be publicly available, thanks to the Freedom of Information Act. Students could contact local leaders and discuss the decision-making process for zoning waste sites and other potentially harmful localities in the area.

Third Option: Conduct interviews or hold videoconferences with various leaders within the Environmental Justice movement. Dr. Bullard, Benjamin Chavis, and others may be open to the idea. Students should prepare a list of interview questions in advance.

References & Additional Resources

Bond, Patrick. Unsustainable South Africa: Environment, Development, and Social Protest. Scottsville: University of Natal Press, 2002.

Bullard, Robert. Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality. Boulder: Westview Press, 2000.

Bullard, Robert, ed. The Quest for Environmental Justice: Human Rights and the Politics of Pollution. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 2005.

Fischer, Frank. Citizens, Experts, and the Environment: the Politics of Local Knowledge. Durham: Duke University Press, 2000.

Fay, Robert. "Environmental Movements in Africa." Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, Second Edition. Edited by Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates Jr. Oxford African American Studies Center.

Guha, Ramachandra. "Radical American Environmentalism and Wilderness Preservation: A Third World Critique," Environmental Ethics 11, no. 1 (1989): 71-83.

Lofton, Kathryn. "Chavis, Benjamin Franklin, Jr.." African American National Biography, edited by Ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. Oxford African American Studies Center.

Weiskel, Tim. "Environmental Racism: An Interpretation." Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, Second Edition. Edited by Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates Jr. Oxford African American Studies Center.

Woods, Clyde. "Discrimination." Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-first Century. Edited by Paul Finkelman. Oxford African American Studies Center.