Twenty-five years of environmental justice scholarship shows that racial and ethnic minorities are more likely than whites to live near facilities that release toxins into the air, land, and water. Even when incomes are similar, racial and ethnic minorities are overrepresented in neighborhoods with polluting industry nearby.
In Baltimore, we find an unexpected pattern — white neighborhoods are more likely than African-American neighborhoods to be close to toxic releasing facilities. An examination of past policies, plans, and documents shows that the present pattern reflects past practices of occupational and residential segregation, and restriction of land use through zoning. Beginning in the 1920s, zoning restricted heavy industry to selected areas of the city, and the vast majority of current toxic facilities are found inside those boundaries set 90 years ago. Historically, many neighborhoods near factories were restricted mainly to white residents, enforced through segregation ordinances and restrictive covenants. Living close to factory work was a privilege afforded mainly to whites, and many of those neighborhoods have persisted for nearly a century. Past injustices regarding place of residence or occupation for African-Americans has thus resulted in the unusual pattern we see today.
Executive order 12898 mandates that all federal agencies “shall make achieving environmental justice part of its mission.” In order to eliminate environmental injustices, new research is necessary to understand the processes that lead to uneven and unfair patterns of environmental burdens. The case of Baltimore shows that environmental justice cannot be judged solely on present-day conditions. Decades of unjust practices, especially racial segregation, must be factored into an assessment of environmental justice. Such research is made possible by the long-term perspective afforded by the LTER program.