Image: “Shut it Down” (2017) by Roger Peet,

Compiled by Danielle M. Purifoy

Environmental Justice (EJ) scholarship in the United States emerged in tandem with social movement activism during the 1980s. Environmental Justice activism and scholarship responds to the spatial violence of racism and capitalism, which reproduce both uneven development across racially segregated communities and high levels of toxicity—physical and social—in communities of color. Though sociologist Robert Bullard is considered the “father of EJ” because of his early research, grassroots organizing of impacted communities is a linchpin of EJ scholarship.  The fight for EJ is a grassroots fight against the toxicity of various industries, the military, corporate greed, profit-driven governance, and, increasingly, policing and systems of incarceration. Beyond its 17 principles, first formed during the 1991 First People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, EJ can locate its roots in several historic and ongoing social movements, from the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s to the farmworker and labor movements in the 1960s and 1970s to current battles for fair housing and habitable neighborhood conditions. Outside of the U.S., where the grassroots EJ movement is now arguably much more active than in the U.S., fights to stop socioecological destruction from oil companies in Ecuador, for Black and indigenous land sovereignty in Colombia and Brazil, and for basic infrastructure access in India, are bound by the extractive forces of globalized economies and the persistence of colonial violence from Europe, the U.S., and Canada.

Environmental Justice scholarship offers several major lessons:

  1. Traditional environmentalism is imbued with a presumption of white domination not only over non-human species, but also over “lesser” humans subjugated through various forms of colonial violence and genocide. Safe and habitable environments—for humans and non-humans—require a concept of the environment that is anti-domination, which includes anti-capitalism.
  2. Racial disparities exist across the spectrum of environmental hazards, with a heavily disproportionate burden on communities of color, particularly Black, indigenous, and Latinx populations. These disparities have major impacts on the quality of life, health, and life expectancy of these groups. Far more than genetics, environmental quality is a primary influence on health outcomes.
  3. Environmental racism frequently persists independent of economic class. This has been perhaps the most contentious academic fight in the field, with many claiming that race is not a genuine factor in determining environmental disparities. Several studies demonstrate that race trumps class for many environmental burdens.
  4. Though communities experience some clear wins in the fight for EJ, many fights coincide with environmental improvements intended to displace burdened communities, rather than improve their quality of life.

This microsyllabus expands on traditional EJ scholarship frameworks, which typically center around empirical analyses of individual and cumulative distributions and impacts of a variety of environmental hazards. There are multitudes of brilliant EJ literatures–please see the works of established scholars Laura Pulido, Julie Sze, and Kyle Whyte, and newer scholars Andrew Curley and Pavithra Vasudevan. However, I am a scholar of Black Studies, and this offering centers Black scholars whose work mostly focuses on Black geographies in the United States. In the spirit of sociologist David Pellow’s call for a more theoretically grounded Critical Environmental Justice Studies, the following five readings offer multidisciplinary demonstrations of environmental racism and conceptualizations of what constitutes justice.

Robert Bullard,  Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality (Routledge [2000] 2010).

A classic EJ text, Dumping in Dixie solidified Bullard’s position as a forerunner in the then-new field of Environmental Justice. Linking his research explicitly to his investment in “environmental civil rights,” Bullard demonstrates the connections between historic and contemporary development practices, such as redlining, racial covenants, and exclusionary zoning, and the environmental overburdens of communities of color. Bullard examines five case studies of environmental racism and battles for justice against toxic industries in Houston, TX, West Dallas, TX, Institute, WV, Alsen, LA, and Emelle-Sumpter County, AL. Though he specifies that he could replicate these case studies in any region of the U.S., with different communities of color, his focus on the U.S. South arose out of his rootedness in the region and in his investment in the environmental burdens on Black people, who are most heavily populated in the South.

Importantly for this first book explicitly on environmental racism, Bullard utilizes a survey to outline the contours of the theoretical and empirical fights that are still commonplace in the scholarship: the tradeoff between environmental quality and economic growth; the salience of environmentalism as a viable form of activism to address toxic racism; the perception of what environmental equity would look like. Though its third edition was published nearly 20 years ago, the cases have deep resonance with contemporary crises in places like Flint, MI and East Chicago, IL, with similar outcomes and lessons.

Charles Mills, “Black Trash,” in Faces of Environmental Racism  (Rowman Littlefield 2001)

The political philosopher Mills is perhaps best known for his groundbreaking political theory in The Racial Contract, which reconceptualizes Western political thought to reflect its inherent white supremacy and rootedness in colonial violence and domination. Mills devotes Chapter 2 of that book to how the racial contract—his correction to the colorblind social contract—racializes spaces both through physical segregation of races and through discourse on the character of spaces based on who resides in them. This short section sets us up perfectly for his later essay, “Black Trash.” Mills builds from extensive empirical evidence of Black communities overburdened with waste and other forms of toxicity to argue that this phenomenon is part of the relational characterization of racialized space, with white spaces designated as “clean,” “progressive,” and “developed,” versus black spaces which are assigned “dirty,” “regressive,” and “wild.” Mills argues that these characterizations were (and are) necessary justifications for white colonial domination of black people and the spaces in which they reside, which carries forward to the everyday “trashing” of black places for the relational advantage of white places. This critical race theory as applied to traditional EJ scholarship, is an important link to other theoretical interventions in political ecology and geography, and a precursor to Pellow’s Critical EJ Studies.

Clyde Woods, Development Arrested: The Blues and Plantation Power in the Mississippi Delta (Verso [1998] 2017)

Similar to Mills, the late urban planning scholar Clyde Woods takes a theoretical approach not explicitly to EJ, but rather to the nature of development itself. In Development Arrested, Woods demonstrates the endurance of plantation power in the systematic underdevelopment of the Mississippi Delta by tracking the transformation of the white planter class into contemporary industrialists with a similar stronghold over the land and political power. Importantly, Woods focuses much of the book on the radical agency of Black folk in the Delta, specifically their planning praxis, which Woods argues arose out of the “blues epistemology,” a way of knowing in opposition to and in spite of the endurance of hegemonic plantation power, and consequently, an alternate strategy to white logics of racial capitalism to conceive of a more human way to create viable communities. Though Woods does not focus explicitly on environmental justice, the implications of the blues epistemology are the manifestation of a form of environmental justice through a rejection of plantation politics and development via racial capitalism. The 2017 edition of Development Arrested, published six years after Woods’ untimely death, features a wonderful tribute by the brilliant scholar and abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore, who was one of his mentors and friends.

Dorceta E. Taylor, Toxic Communities: Environmental Racism, Industrial Pollution, and Residential Mobility (NYU Press, 2014)

In this, one of several of her books about environmentalism, the EJ movement, and the history of people in cities, environmental sociologist Dorceta Taylor takes on a number of zoning and urban planning practices and other mechanisms of neighborhood segregation and draws concrete connections to environmental racism. In particular, she directly addresses the oft repeated question in response to cases of environmental racism—“Why don’t they just move?”  She shows that this myth of universal mobility of overburdened communities to cleaner, safer environments is an erasure of a century of structural mechanisms of racial segregation. These mechanisms inherently limit the mobility of many communities of color, even when they have the means to move. Further, as Taylor demonstrates, placing the onus of moving on burdened communities neither addresses the root causes of their toxic expulsion nor the deep connections that many communities have to place, which are not fungible.

If Bullard offers empirical evidence of environmental racism, and Mills and Woods offer its high level theoretical underpinnings, then Taylor offers the how of environmental racism through identifying its many historic and contemporary mechanisms in urban planning and development.

Toni Morrison, Sula (Knopf 1973; Vintage International 2004)

Toni Morrison was not an EJ scholar, but the late Nobel Prize-winning author knew the fine contours of Black geographies—you might say she wrote the blues epistemology into everything she penned. Several of her novels take on some element of black spatiality; however Sula, her second novel, presents us with a classic early 20th-century Black community located on a hill on the fringe of a white town, likely a sundown town where Black folk were allowed to work during the day, but were not permitted to remain at night, which meant they could neither rent nor own property within the white town limits. The narrative arc of the book takes the reader not only through the complex relationship of the two main characters—Sula and Nel—but also through the gradual destruction of the Bottom, as whites living in the valley town of Medallion penetrate its resources to build a luxury golf resort. The relationality of the characters to each other, to the Bottom, and to Medallion, provide a rich aesthetic framework for understanding the power dynamics that create “black trash” in the Bottom. They also demonstrate the deep subjectivity of people as rooted in specific places and ways of knowing, and what that can mean, ultimately, for their fates.


Danielle Purifoy is a writer, lawyer, and current Carolina Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Geography at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her current research traces the roots of contemporary environmental inequality in the U.S. South, particularly in the development of Black towns and settlements. Danielle is an editor for Scalawag, a magazine devoted to Southern politics and culture and a board member of the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network.