Is Environmental Racism a Myth?

A new environmental inequality study suggests that racial
disparities in housing and income may not be why heavily minority areas tend to
be more polluted.

Dr. Liam Downey, a sociologist from the University of Colorado,
investigated environmental racism in 61 large American metropolitan areas for
the study, titled “U.S.
Metropolitan-area Variation in Environmental Inequality Outcomes.” The study
was published in the May issue of Urban Studies, housed at Scotland’s
University of Glasgow.

“The results may surprise people who think
that environmental racial inequality is due solely to poverty and residential
segregation,” Downey says. “Instead,
it seems likely that the roles these factors play in shaping environmental
inequality is highly contingent on local conditions.”

Downey
calculated the air pollution “burden” on each neighborhood using a measure of
air pollutant concentration and toxicity developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
He then examined each city’s burden along racial lines. The next step was to
see whether cities with high levels of residential segregation and wide racial
income gaps also suffered a heavy air pollution burden.

If residential segregation was the main
contributor to environmental racial inequality, Downey
theorized, then air pollution inequality levels would be highest in cities that
had high residential segregation, like Detroit,
Milwaukee
and New York. But that
was not the case.

Similarly, if the primary culprit was a
racial income gap, pollution inequality levels would be strongest in cities
with the most extreme income disparity, like Minneapolis
and Memphis,
Tenn. But again, the findings did
not match the theory.

As it turned out, the metropolitan areas
with the highest amount of Black-White environment inequality were Orlando, Fla.,
Norfolk,
Va., Louisville, Ky.,
and Portland,
Ore.

Downey’s
study contradicts the findings of some researchers, who argue that low-income
ethnic minorities lack the capacity to keep hazardous facilities out of their
neighborhood. And because they can’t afford to move, they are forced to stay in
the polluted neighborhoods.

The study “does not mean that residential
segregation plays no role in producing environmental racial inequality,” Downey
says. Instead, it demonstrates that it “exists in most large metropolitan areas
but … the explanation for it is more complex.”

–  Margaret  Kamara

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