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Testing for Environmental Racism: Prejudice, Profits, Political Power?

January 2020

James T. Hamilton


This article tests three main hypotheses for why racial discrepancies exist in terms of exposure to environmental hazards. The first hypothesis posits that pure discrimination on behalf of corporations creates these discrepancies. The second asserts that certain racial communities differ in their willingness to pay for “environmental amenities” that would lessen their risk of exposure to harmful toxins and pollutants. Finally, the third hypothesis posits that some communities are more likely and/or able than others to collectively organize against the placement of environmental hazards in their midst. Upon reviewing each, author and Stanford Professor James T. Hamilton concludes that the disproportionate concentration of environmental hazards in non-white neighborhoods, an inherently racialized fact, can best be explained by the lack of resources and infrastructure for collective organization within these marginalized racial communities. Thus, hypothesis three provides the most satisfactory explanation.

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Policy Implications

Although Hamilton himself would certainly acknowledge that some placement of environmental toxins in neighborhoods of color is due to malice and intentional racism, his analysis of various zip codes and their share of environmental burdens concludes that most toxin placement occurs due to a lack of organizing power for marginalized communities. Thus, policy prescriptions meant to solve this complex problem must assist oppressed people in acquiring resources and collective power. This could be as direct as legislatively supporting and strengthening unions or as indirect as building social infrastructure like public parks and gathering spaces in order to support community-building activities. More public assistance for minority populations in affording a college education, one of the most certain ways to acquire resources in America today, would also be an indirect way to tackle this environmental injustice.

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