When a Zip Code Determines Your Health: How can Individuals and Communities Fight against Environmental Racism?

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What is environmental racism?

Dr. Robert Bullard (the father of environmental justice) defined environmental racism as “any policy, practice, or directive that differentially affects or disadvantages (whether intended or unintended) individuals, groups, or communities based on race or color.” Environmental racism usually exists at the institutional level by affecting whole neighborhoods and communities. Environmental racism can manifest in several different forms such as:

  • Zoning ordinances that typically situate industry and pollution in communities of color.
  • Increased air pollution in communities of color.
  • Increased likelihood of landfills, factories, and toxic waste facilities being located in communities of color.
  • Worse water quality in communities of color.
  • Higher rates of lead poisoning in communities of color.

Informational video:

“Zip codes often [have] more of an effect on health than genetic codes.”

– Danyelle Solomon and Tracey Ross

What are the impacts of environmental racism?

Environmental racism has several harmful impacts on communities of color. For example, lead poisoning disproportionately affects communities of color due to poor infrastructure and maintenance. Even when controlling for class, Black children are two to three times more likely to suffer from lead poisoning than White children. Additionally, Black communities have 1.5 times more airborne pollutants than the overall population. This directly results in respiratory diseases like Asthma and is cumulatively worse than smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. 

What is the environmental justice movement?

The environmental justice movement seeks to combat and solve environmental racism. There are multiple organizations that fall under this umbrella, but their approaches can be as varied as lobbying the government to community-based relief and protesting. The movement started in 1982 in Warren County, North Carolina when communities of color protested against the planned creation of a new landfill which would pollute the surrounding area. While the protest was ultimately unsuccessful, it did draw national attention and led to today’s environmental justice movements and organizations. The activism spurred on by the Warren County protests has continued today through organizations like the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Energy Justice Network, Energy Action Coalition, and the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Environmental Justice. These organizations are fighting for environmental justice with both micro and macro solutions. One example of this is the response to the Flint water crisis. The crisis started when city officials switched the drinking water supply from the Detroit water supply to Flint River to cut costs. This led to months of high levels of pollutants and lead in the drinking water; primarily affecting poor communities of color. This crisis was “one of the most emblematic examples of environmental racism” and led to national coverage and fueled the environmental justice movement (Hanna-Attisha). The ensuing activism and protests lead to tangible change and reform, with the city helping residents by giving bottled water and other resources.

What is being done:

In the face of these large organizations and massive problems, it’s hard to know how you and I can make a difference. The first step to joining the movement is to realize that  “we can’t be bystanders or assume other people are going to fix this” (Hanna-Attisha). At the micro-level, people can support the environmental justice movement by “voting, organizing, holding elected officials accountable, running for office, and demanding better environmental protections” (Hanna-Attisha). These solutions have a proven track record of bringing immediate relief to pressing issues but fall short at creating the greater shifts in society that are needed to solve root causes of environmental racism.


At the macro level, state representatives can support bills that bring environmental justice. This can look like increasing funding and support for the EPA, increasing environmental regulations for polluters, or banning harmful contaminants. These changes will be slow to come by and need to be constantly upheld, but they will get to the root of the problem. Another consideration is the fact that the same people in power are those with a vested interest in the status quo. This is where the micro and macro intersect because officials need our support and votes. Combining both methods will lead to short and long-term solutions that will bring environmental justice.

Background Essays:

  1. Personal interest essay
  2. Historical problem essay
  3. Current problems and solutions essay

How can you help?

  1. What do you think is needed now, micro or macro solutions?
  2. What examples of environmental racism have you seen in your neighborhoods and how can you solve them?
  3. Do you think schools should be teaching students more about this problem?


Click here for the bibliography


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Student at Head-Royce School, Oakland, CA USA.


  1. Hi Francis! Your project clearly explains a serious problem with our institutions and how environmental racism is built into them. Great job!

  2. Hi Francis!
    I have never truly considered this issue before. I really appreciate your research which has educated me. I used to live in the Detroit area and saw some of the effects resulting from the Flint water crisis and even had days when we were told not to drink the water from drinking fountains at school. Thank you for calling attention to this issue. I hope you will continue to educate and continue your research.

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