Environmental Racism in Chicago

In the United States, there is a systematic disparity of exposure to environmental pollution in which low-income minority groups are forced to bear the burden of associated health problems and risks. This essay will highlight the systematic ways in which marginalized groups are targeted and exploited to work and live in unsafe conditions, which ultimately impacts their overall quality of life and health. The environmental justice movement and community organized groups’ goals are to target the systematic structures that allows for the continuation of inequality. Throughout Chicago’s history, there have been many cases of environmental injustice and inequality in the South and West neighborhoods consisting of predominately Black and Latinx members. The treadmill of production theory and history of exclusionary zoning practices provide a framework for the two case studies of environmental justice that will be presented in Little Village and the surrounding area. Ultimately, the work done by environmental justice organizations benefit the community by reducing exposure and risk, but even the process of “greening” the neighborhood can put its members at risk for environmental gentrification and displacement.

Environmental racism is a term used to describe the disproportionate exposure to toxic and hazardous waste in low-income minority communities due to the inequality of environmental policymaking and laws (Pellow 2000 and Brulle and Pellow 2006). Environmental racism is an extension of the systematic racism that minority groups have faced in the United States throughout history. Specifically, Latinx and African Americans are at a systematic disadvantage, unable to access appropriate resources, and are put at a higher risk for health and economic disparity. In Chicago, factories and industrial manufacturing production plants are placed in predominately Hispanic and Black communities. Air, water, and ground pollution from these production facilities impede on the health of the overall community both directly or indirectly. The collective exposure to these pollutions is at much higher rate than the surrounding white-affluent neighborhoods. Improper storage of hazardous waste, illegal dumping, and lack of education and protection for the workers all contribute to unjust and unequal environmental protection. This is a human health crisis causing higher rates of asthma, cancer, respiratory illness, lead poisoning, and cardiovascular disease seen at exponentially higher rates in these communities (Brulle and Pellow 2006).  The accessibility to healthcare is limited in low-income minority and immigrant communities. This, in combination with unsafe living conditions, leads to suffering of specific populations. Chicago’s segregated neighborhoods allow for specific minority communities to be targeted and ultimately exploited. 

Chicago is currently one of the most segregated cities in America. Discriminatory housing practices in the 1920s segregated immigrant and minority communities into sectors of Chicago that lacked job opportunities, access to education, healthcare, and inadequate housing. This put these populations at a significant disadvantage, while offering high risk jobs working with hazardous materials without proper protocol and protection in place. Exclusionary zoning practices throughout the districts persist today even after the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Figure 1 depicts the racial distribution throughout Chicago’s neighborhoods (Demographics Research Group 2010). We can see that Hispanic and Black communities are located in the South and West side of Chicago, while white populations are in affluent areas of the city and the Northern suburbs. This is consistent with historical redlining of racial and housing discrimination that began in 1934 with the National Housing Act. Figure 2 is a map identifying the most at-risk populations for exposure to pollution (Lam 2018). An overlay of Figure 1 and Figure 2 depicts a clear correlation between Black and Hispanic populations and high rates of environmental pollution. The foundational history of Chicago contributes to the overall inequality seen in these communities of marginalized groups today.

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