Hamilton Dam on the Flint River

| |

Environmental Racism & The Social Roots of the Flint Water Crisis

In this essay, Nathan Palmer discusses the scandalous environmental tragedy in Flint, Michigan and shows how the catastrophe illustrates the connection between social inequality and environmental inequality.

For over a year in Flint, Michigan, the tap water has been a disgusting brown color. For over a year, local residents have been protesting in the streets, shouting at town hall meetings, and pleading with government officials to declare an emergency and clean their tap water. For over a year, state officials told the residents that the brown water was safe to drink. But, it wasn’t. The water was highly corrosive and contaminated with lead.

How Did This Happen?

The Social Roots of Environmental Catastrophe

When I tell people that I teach environmental sociology, typically their first question to me is, “what does the environment have to do with sociology?” It is as if the natural environment couldn’t be farther from the social environments that humans inhabit. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Environmental sociology exists to highlight how the way we think about and interact with the environment is shaped by our society’s culture and social structure. One of the greatest contributions sociologists have made to environmental science has been revealing the many ways social inequality is connected to environmental degradation. Simply put, social inequality often leads to environmental inequality.

Environmental inequality describes any situation where one social group is disproportionately affected by environmental hazards (Pellow 2000). One specific form of this inequality is Environmental racism which, “refers to any policy, practice, or directive that differentially affects or disadvantages (whether intended or unintended) individuals, groups, or communities based on race or color” (Bullard 1993: 3). In study after study, researchers have found that poor people and specifically people of color live in environments that are more toxic and more prone to environmental catastrophe (Brulle and Pellow 2006). Two primary reasons for this environmental inequality are sociological: residential segregation and NIMBY politics.

Residential Segregation & Environmental Inequality

When we talk about housing we often talk about where people, “choose to live.” However, for many poor people choice has little to do with it. Low income families can often only afford housing in just a few neighborhoods in their community. For families who live in government subsidized housing, they frequently have almost no say in where their homes are located. Rent is cheaper in neighborhoods that are close to environmental hazards. Furthermore, inexpensive housing is itself more likely to be toxic; with issues ranging from black mold to lead paint (Brulee and Pellow 2006).

NIMBY Politics & Environmental Inequality

The social inequality of housing segregation can also be directly connected to environmental inequality. Specifically, racial residential segregation often plays a role in where governments and corporations decide to locate toxin producing businesses or toxic waste. Brulle and Pellow (2006: 109) illustrate how social and environmental inequalities intersect:

“Racial segregation is a major contributor to the creation and maintenance of environmental inequality because governments and corporations often seek out the path of least resistance when locating polluting facilities in urban and rural settings. Thus polluters can site locally unwanted land uses in such neighborhoods because they are more isolated socially and relatively powerless politically.”

This is what’s known as N.I.M.B.Y. politics. When deciding where to place toxic businesses or waste site, every community shouts at their government officials, “not in my back yard!” Then each community mobilizes their resources (either financial, political, or otherwise) to ensure that their neighborhood won’t be chosen as the dumping site. Because people of color are disproportionately poor and less socially powerful, they cannot mobilize as many resources as their more affluent neighbors and thus they are forced to bare the burden of pollution and environmental waste.

Flint is a Classic Example of Environmental Racism

What happened in Flint wasn’t a natural occurring disaster like a tornado or earthquake. This was a human made disaster and therefore it reflects the dynamics of power in our society as a whole. The majority of Flint’s residents are African American (56.6%) and it is in the poorest neighborhoods where some of the highest levels of lead poisoning have been reported (41.5% of Flint’s households are below the federal poverty line). Flint is just the latest example, in a very long line of examples of a socially disempowered community suffering through an environmental catastrophe (Brulle and Pellow 2006).

What happened in Flint is environmental racism. What happened in Flint makes it clear that social inequality is often reflected in and recreated by environmental inequality.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Describe NIMBY politics in your own words. How could communities decide where to locate environmental hazards in a way that would be more equitable to poorer communities?
  2. While this article focused on the environmental inequality surrounding the distribution of toxins, there is also inequality in how our society distributes the more positive aspects of the environment. Describe a situation where having access to resources allows a person to enjoy the more beautiful parts of nature. Explain your answer.
  3. In your opinion, what role did the racial and economic makeup of Flint’s community have on how long it took for the government and the mainstream media to react?
  4. Read this article on how widespread water contamination is in the United States. Then describe what changes should be made (in our government, economy, etc.) to ensure that everyone in the U.S. has access to clean water.


  • Brulle, Robert J. and David N. Pellow. 2006. “Environmental Justice: Human Health and Environmental Inequalities.” Annual Review of Public Health 27:103–24.
  • Bullard, Robert D. 1993. Confronting Environmental Racism: Voices from the Grassroots. Boston, Mass.: South End Press.
  • Pellow, David N. 2000. “Environmental Inequality Formation toward a Theory of Environmental Injustice.” American Behavioral Scientist 43(4):581–601.

Photo by George Thomas via Flickr Commons