Environmental racism in the U.S.A.: an analysis on Louisiana and Texas

di Enrico Fedi - 30 Novembre 2020

 from London, United Kingdom

 DOI : 10.48256/TDM2012_00157

George Floyd’s death in June 2020 has increased the importance of Black Lives Matter (B.L.M.) instances in the U.S.A. and throughout the globe. The movement resonates with contemporary and urgent issues that are affecting the U.S. and not only. B.L.M.’s discourse is necessarily intersectional and covers topics of environmental justice as well. The latter promotes a vision of a society in which nobody is unevenly affected by environmental hazards, and people have fair access to environmental resources. Also, environmental justice is linked to environmental racism, which witnesses that B.I.P.O.C. (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) are generally more exposed to environmental harms and are less represented. Thus, B.L.M. is interested in guaranteeing environmental justice and inspires reflections on several cases of environmental racism in the U.S.A.

The article will echo this and will show two contemporary examples of environmental racism in Louisiana and Texas. It will draw insights from Dr Bond (University of Westminster) and Dr Rapson (King’s College London) ongoing research, which analyses environmental racism in the U.S. They exposed the study at the British Academy in London.

Through political ecology lenses, the article will decompose the realities of Louisiana and Texas and will see which aspects allow us to identify patterns of environmental racism. The role of socio-historical factors, representation and different narratives will be analysed to inspire reflections and hopefully, actions. Also, the article will show the relevance of these issues in the contemporary academic debate.

What is environmental racism?

The definition is highly debated because it involves concepts such as race, justice and environment, which are not unanimously shared by  academics (Holifield, 2001). This article echoes the World Economic Forum and defines environmental racism as “a form of systemic racism whereby communities of colours are disproportionately burdened with health hazards through policies and practices that force them to live in proximity to sources of toxic waste” (2020). Many of these problems are faced generally by low-income communities as a whole. Yet, Bullard (2007) has remarked, “race to be more important than socioeconomic status in predicting the location of the nation’s commercial hazardous waste facilities”.

Generally, forms of environmental racisms occur through different channels. Regarding Texas and Louisiana, the article will show how these practices happen through specific white supremacist narratives, cultural-historical heritage, and representation.

Political ecology is an essential tool in identifying cases of environmental racism. To understand the power relations and how vulnerabilities are produced, political ecology interrogates the geographical space and its relations. Material questions on the distribution of environmental resources and the analysis of different epistemologies are relevant to these studies (Robbins, 2012).

An overview of Louisiana and Texas

Texas and Louisiana are essential oil producers in the U.S.A., and data show that black communities are living close to highly polluting refineries. Thus, they are more exposed to diseases. Yet, access to health services is not fully guaranteed, and these communities lack representation in the political debate. A clearing example is the Cancer Alley in Louisiana, an 85 mile-long stretch of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, lined with oil refineries. The area is one of the most polluted in the country, and it is mostly populated by non-white communities lacking appropriate representation. Also, in San Jacinto, Texas, similar dynamics are happening. Big oil companies release toxic waste in the San Jacinto River, exposing millions of people – many in the neighbourhood of colour- to deadly chemicals (Climate News, 2020). Moreover, climate change increases the risk of contamination as flooding happens more frequently, spreading pollutants in larger areas.

Historical factors and narratives

According to Pulido (2000), to fully grasp processes of environmental racism, historical factors have to be held into account and incorporated into space and scales. These factors would allow us to understand the perpetuation of racism into contemporary narratives. Not surprisingly, the southern states are sadly known for being a slavery hotspot in the previous centuries. The pride, development and identity of these societies passed through human exploitation, and explicit processes of racism are still happening today. Also, the areas nowadays intoxicated were former slavery-based sugar plantations. This factor highlights the relevance of historical factors and space in today’s white supremacist narratives.

Oil companies significantly contribute to the economic growth of the Federation (US EIA, 2020). Therefore, they exercise a considerable influence on the representation and configuration of society. Today, it is possible to identify how these large oil companies are perpetuating epistemologies of white supremacy, attached to the areas’ slavery past. Indeed, through the analysis of the spatial allocation of non-white communities, it is possible to see that they are living close to polluting oil plants, and consequently being exposed to higher levels of toxicity (E.P.A., 2018). This vulnerability provokes displacements and diseases. The cancer toll is so elevated that The Guardian (2020), has named “cancer town” a settlement. These dynamics, going under the name of slow violence (Nixon, 2013) are responsible for environmental injustices.

Cultural institutions

It is possible to identify patterns of white supremacy in the cultural institutions as well. Recognising their creation allows us to understand how cases of environmental racism can arise. Oil companies are the main sponsors of several cultural institutions, and they fund a cultural narrative perpetuating patterns of discrimination. This narrative leads to a normalisation of racism, which now intersects with culture, history and pride (Robinson, 1983; Hevnen 2016). To illustrate this, the article will consider the famous Oak Valley Plantation site in Louisiana and the San Jacinto Museum in Texas.

The Oak Valley Plantation was a notable sugar plantation site in the area. Despite this, the museum does not acknowledge its slavery past that much. Contrarily, the site appears today as a place of serenity. It is possible to perceive a romantic narrative of nostalgia towards the prosperous times of the past when Louisiana was growing sugar corn and was one of the richest countries within the Federation. The central tragedy of the areas, according to the museum narrative is only the financial decline of the post-slave era. This is the result of a white supremacy-based narrative, which continues to dominate in contemporary times. Not much space is given to the dreadful conditions of the people.

The San Jacinto museum celebrates the Texan Revolution of 1836. It downplays the American usurpation on native populations, emphasising the pride of the pioneering times. According to the researchers, the narrative is significant. The museum is financed by Shell, witnessing the oil importance to the region. Following a political ecology approach, there is a combined narrative of oil companies including pride, domination and white supremacy. In this narrative, there is no space for native populations and no reference to the high toxicity levels which are facing vulnerable communities.

Uneven representation and power relations

Another issue regards uneven representation. Because of the main narrative, the non-white communities’ concerns and needs are not considered. Not only the biased petrochemical companies fund white supremacy-biased cultural institutions, but they also sponsor major political candidates.

In San Jacinto, Texas, the relationship between oil companies, the communities, and the state is stable. These elements are intertwined and grow together. The abovementioned researchers showed that nowadays it is unfeasible to think about the history, the present and the future of the area without the presence of oil. As a consequence, there is no possible change or justice for those who are negatively affected. An interviewee from the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People said: “people cannot imagine their future”

Representation and racism go hand in hand, and it is possible to identify the power relations behind such discriminations. Indeed, oil companies, which pollute and harm black communities, are interested in pursuing their interests. Since oil companies possess the financial means to influence the political body, they manage to keep inconvenient instance out of the political agenda. By doing so, non-white communities lack adequate representation in the political debate, and their concerns are not sufficiently heard.

There are grassroots minority groups like the T.E.J.A.S. that fight for the rights of these communities. Yet, organisations struggle to connect to like-minded networks and bring about change in the system.

Racial capitalism and black geography

The cases described above have high resonance with academic literature. Contemporary processes of land deals bear neo-colonialist assumptions (White et al., 2012.) Indeed, land deals affect social relations in the area and the labour process. Thus, phenomena of dispossession, exclusion and disempowerment are likely to happen. According to Robinson (1983), racism is the conceptual base of capitalist development. Pulido (2017) follows these ideas. She argues that the devaluation of non-white bodies has been incorporated into economic growth and pollution, claiming that environmental racism is a constituent of racial capitalism. The social disparity is needed to create value.

Academics also find links between the black body and the environment, following concepts such as afro-pessimism and black geographies. Wright (2018) calls into question the relationship between land, environment and race in the U.S.A. In particular, he highlights the racist configurations of the earth that creates environmental injustices targeted at black communities. He also shows how anti-black racism is endangering not only communities but the environment as well. Pulido (2016) argues that white privilege is so widespread that white supremacy is often overlooked in the U.S., calling for a re-emphasis on the dynamics that produce environmental injustices.

Environmental racism as a form of slow violence

Lastly, the cases resonate with the concept of slow violence. As argued by Nixon (2013), slow violence is an invisible and incremental form of violence, as opposed to the direct one, that exacerbates the vulnerability of the ecosystem, leading to environmental injustices. Nixon explores the connection between slow violence and the poor, arguing that those who are lacking resources are the main casualties of such violence and face ecological hazards. Other authors, like Rios et al. (2018), have explored the linkages between space, specific communities and diseases.

Building on Nixon’s masterpiece, Davies (2018) explores the relationship between time and toxicity. He combines the notion of slow violence to Mbembe’s concept of necropolitics (2003), arguing that environmental justice in Louisiana responds to a post-colonial ideology of “let them die”. So, the authorities are not directly killing non-white communities, but letting them die, in a subtle relation with timing, pollution and racism. Locals are aware of this, but they have no space to express themselves, creating a sense of hopelessness. Grassroots movements are developing but still inefficient.


The article has shown two examples of environmental racism. Unfortunately, the cases are not isolated and happen in separate areas of the world in diverse ways. The role of cultural institutions and historical factors are essential in understanding – and possibly tackling- environmental racism. Nevertheless, many factors come into play when addressing environmental racism, and researchers must always lead a case-by-case analysis. Regarding the U.S., new scenarios are now open with the increase in B.L.M.’s influence and the recent presidential election. Former President Trump rolled back on many environmental regulations which facilitated forms of environmental injustices. Instead, Biden has called for greater attention on environmental and justice issues. Hopefully, this will create favourable opportunities to tackle cases of environmental racism in the future.


Bibliography (B – L)

Bullard, R. et al. (2007). Toxic wastes and race at twenty

Davies, T. (2018). Toxic Space and Time: Slow Violence, Necropolitics, and Petrochemical Pollution. Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 108(6), 1537-1553.

Desai, Renu, McFarlane, Colin, and Graham, Stephen. “The Politics of Open Defecation: Informality, Body, and Infrastructure in Mumbai.” Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography. 47.1 (2015): 98-120. Web.

Eia.gov. 2020. Homepage – U.S. Energy Information Administration (E.I.A.).

Eia.gov. 2020. Louisiana Profile. [online] Available at: <https://www.eia.gov/state/print.php?sid=LA>

Heynen, N. (2016). Urban political ecology II. Progress in Human Geography., 40(6), 839-845.

Holifield, R. (2001) DEFINING ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE AND ENVIRONMENTAL RACISM, Urban Geography, 22:1, 78-90, DOI: 10.2747/0272-3638.22.1.78

InsideClimate News. 2020. Hundreds Of Toxic Superfund Sites Imperiled By Sea-Level Rise, Study Warns. [online] Available at: <https://insideclimatenews.org/news/27072020/toxic-superfund-epa-sea-level-rise-climate-change>

Lartey, J., Laughland, O. and Morris, S., 2020. ‘Almost Every Household Has Someone That Has Died From Cancer’. [online] the Guardian. <https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/ng-interactive/2019/may/06/cancertown-louisana-reserve-special-report>

Bibliography (M-RI)

Mbembé, J. A., & Meintjes, L. (2003). Necropolitics. Public culture, 15(1), 11-40.

N.A.A.C.P. 2020. N.A.A.C.P. | About The NAACP. [online] Available at https://www.naacp.org/about-us/

Nixon, R. (2013). Slow violence and the environmentalism of the poor (Paperback ed.).

Pulido, L. (2016). Flint, Environmental Racism, and Racial Capitalism. Capitalism Nature Socialism, 27(3), 1-16.

Pulido, L. (2017). Geographies of race and ethnicity II: Environmental racism, racial capitalism and state-sanctioned violence. Progress in Human Geography, 41(4), 524-533.

Pulido, L., 2000, Rethinking environmental racism: White privilege and urban development in southern California. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vol. 90, 12-40.

Rios, S., Lipsitz, George, Akom, Antwi, Rios, Victor, & Segura, Denise. (, 2018). Valley Fever: Environmental Racism and Health Justice, ProQuest Dissertations and Theses.

Bibliography (RO-W)

Robbins, P. (2012). Political ecology a critical introduction (2nd ed., Critical introductions to geography). Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Robin, K., 2017 Jan 12. What Did Cedric Robinson Mean by Racial Capitalism? | Boston Review: http://bostonreview.net/race/robin-d-g-kelley-what-did-cedric-robinson-mean-racial-capitalism

Talk Poverty. 2020. Environmental Racism Is Killing Black Communities In Louisiana. [online] Available at: <https://talkpoverty.org/2020/01/09/environmental-racism-black-communities-louisiana/>

Tejasbarrios.org. 2020. [online] Available at: <https://www.tejasbarrios.org/>

US EPA. 2020. R.S.E.I. Results Map | US EPA. [online] Available at: <https://www.epa.gov/rsei/rsei-results-map>

White, B., Borras Jr, S., Hall, R., Scoones, I., & Wolford, W. (2012). The new enclosures: Critical perspectives on corporate land deals. The Journal of Peasant Studies, 39(3-4), 619-647.

World Economic Forum. 2020. What Is Environmental Racism And How Can We Fight It?. [online] Available at: <https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/07/what-is-environmental-racism-pollution-covid-systemic/>

Wright, W. J. (2018). As Above, So Below: Anti-Black Violence as Environmental Racism. Antipode.


Autore dell’articolo*: Enrico Fedi, studente di Master in Environment and Development presso London School of Economics and Political Science e Dottore in Scienze Internazionali e Diplomatiche presso l’ Università degli studi di Trieste. Come sempre pubblichiamo i nostri lavori per stimolare altre riflessioni, che possano portare ad integrazioni e approfondimenti.


Nota della redazione del Think Tank Trinità dei Monti

Come sempre pubblichiamo i nostri lavori per stimolare altre riflessioni, che possano portare ad integrazioni e approfondimenti. 

* I contenuti e le valutazioni dell’intervento sono di esclusiva responsabilità dell’autore.

Editor’s Note – Think Tank Trinità dei Monti

As always, we publish our articles to encourage debates, and to spread knowledge and original and alternative points of view.

* The contents and the opinions of this article belong to the author(s) of this article only.