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Environmental Racism in New York City

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Environmental Studies
Wordcount: 1658 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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This study examines the environmental inequalities seen in New York City, New York and the emotional distress faced by residents with the knowledge of this inequality. Using historical findings in the context of the prejudicial nature of those in power at the time, we are able to track the roots of environmental racism and the fruit it bore. By performing ethnographic research on these populations, we are able to strip preconceived notions from the data and keep the historical memory of different populations centered in relation to the facts and experiences collected. We hope to finally discern the core of racial politics in the field of Urban Health and its deleterious effect on Black people and their Emotional and Physical Health.


In 1992, Reverend Benjamin Chavis coined the term “environmental racism” when discussing a national study entitled Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States, which correlated the location of toxic waste facilities with the communities of people of color. Chavis defined environmental racism as “racial discrimination in environmental policy-making and the enforcement of regulations and laws, the deliberate targeting of people of color communities for toxic waste facilities, the official sanctioning of the life-threatening presence of poisons and pollutants in our communities, and the history of excluding people of color from leadership in the environmental movement”. Many researchers have worked to substantiate the claim of environmental inequality as well as investigate the relationship between demographics and the environment.  This also includes finding material evidence to judge whether the bias of elected officials played the starkest role in the placement of pollutants in areas dominated by people of color.

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Much of the research on white supremacy and its effects looked at the role of law, society, and science and its usage in the subjugation of Black people, but few have paid attention to how environmental factors change how we view race (Zimring 2017). My goal is to find if these inequalities exist in New York City and how they influence the ways Black people view themselves. In essence, those aware of the situation will have a fuller understanding of the totality of discrimination erecting barriers in their lives for no reason other than a belief that they are inferior. A similar study preformed in Newark, New Jersey found that residents face forms of emotional distress due to their understanding of the role pollution and toxic waste is playing in their communities. (Dory 2016) Living in an area with harmful environmental conditions leads not only to chronic illness such as asthma but also “emotional distress such as anxiety, fear, and anger…which furthers exacerbates health risks”. (Dory 2016) For decades, black people have shared stories and warning of bad air, asthma and cancer afflicting their friends and family who lived in certain parts of the country.  These warnings can now be proven by studies that show black people are exposed to about 1.5 times more particulate matter than white people, particulate matter known for decreasing cardiac function, increasing asthma severity, causing low birth weights and high blood pressure.

In this study, I intend to quantify to what extent Black and Brown people have been intentionally exposed to toxic environments with no recourse from the government through survey and census tract data. Following that, I want to describe the emotional experiences of people living in this area and how they respond to this knowledge. Historically speaking, the Ku Klux Klan and Slave-owners in the United States relied heavily on scientific racism and definitions of purity to justify the enslavement of Africans. By equating white skin with clean, the underpinnings of Institutional and Systemic abuse of Black peoples through allowing and maintaining uninhabitable spaces for Black people to live in was set.

Combining the legacy of redlining makes the idea of environmental racism in New York City that much clearer. In 1971, President Nixon’s Council on Environmental Quality found that racial discrimination negatively affects the quality of environment among the urban poor (U.S Council on Environmental Quality, 1971).  Despite efforts for Environmental Justice across the nation, residents are exposed to environmental hazards on a daily basis(Dory,2017). This in part accounts for the Health Disparities we see in Cancer, Asthma, respiratory infections etc).



I intend to identify communities of interest by employing a combination of census-tract data, federal records on redlining and rates of asthma by Zip Code in New York City. We can extrapolate statistics on who lives closer to a pollution center/ facility that produces toxic waste. Similar to Dory et al, I plan to survey individuals living in these zip codes to find if they are aware of the situation and explore the emotional experiences of these individuals. Participants in the survey will be over the age of 18, recruited through a combination of social media and door knocking to reach older populations.  Participants will receive $15 for their role in the study.

 Procedure and Design

The survey will be comprised of three stages; base knowledge, awareness and emotional experience.

Participants will be asked about whether they believe they live near an environmental hazard; and to describe what they consider to be an environmental hazard. Participants will also be asked about their own physical health and the general health of people that they observe in their neighborhood. Having this information will make it possible to gauge their reaction to other parts of the study.

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Then, participants will be shown the results from my results from my quantitative study, listing the various environmental hazards in their zip code. Participants will be made aware in no vague terms about the threats each hazard poses if they exist. After learning about this information, participants will provide how they feel about being subjected to these living conditions. Participants will be asked about how others in their community talk about the environmental hazard. Administrators should try to get their initial reaction as well as other indications of stress or discontent. In real time, administrators may be able to witness the psychosocial adaptation of their subject. Black people may have higher levels of stress linked to exposure to overt racism. Their stress can be considered mundane extreme stress, where the awareness of discrimination creates an omnipresent stressor.

Predicted Results


After administering this study, I expect to find that people living in majority Black zip codes are in close proximity to Environmental Hazards. I expect this to be the case based on elected officials in the past and present calling on their respective elected bodies to action on the subject of environmental racism (Richards 2016). I also expect to find reports of harm to the physical health of respondents and their families. The Environmental Protection Agency reports that for black people, geography are only part of the problem. It is increasingly possible that minority neighborhoods see higher degrees of pollutants from individual factories than white people.

There are some limitations to the research and the conclusions formed from it. Firstly, what is the magnitude of the effect of the environment alone? Environmental Racism is only a section of the tapestry of bias people of color of exposed to. It is the intersection between White Supremacy, Politics, Health and Urban Planning. Black and Brown communities see an overall narrowing of life’s opportunities, from environmental concerns to food deserts. People in these communities do not have the power to stop environmental deregulation, the encroachment of predatory companies and the corrupt politician. It is only possible to create this kind of discrimination by creating minority neighborhoods through redlining and housing discrimination. 

We will also be limited by our ability to quantify the bias shown by respondents who are not impacted by this research. While crowdsourcing for ideas, a common refrain I received happened to be “Why don’t they live elsewhere” and it will be difficult to adequately deal with the internalized oppression of some subjects. This study will require administrators proficient in navigating difficult conversations.


  • Dory, G., Qiu, Z., Qiu, C. M., Fu, M. R., & Ryan, C. E. (2017). A phenomenological understanding of residents’ emotional distress of living in an environmental justice community. International journal of qualitative studies on health and well-being, 12(1), 1269450.
  • Greenberg, D. (2000). Reconstructing race and protest: Environmental justice in New York City. Environmental History, 5(2), 223-250.
  • Richards, D. (2016, January 30). New York City must end environmental racism. Retrieved from https://cityandstateny.com/articles/opinion/new-york-city-must-end-environmental-racism.html
  • U. S. Council on Environmental Quality. (1971). Environmental Quality. Washington, D.C. Government Printing Office.
  • Zimring, C. A. (2017). Clean and white: A history of environmental racism in the United States. NYU Press.


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