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Environmental Racism in Chicago

Updated: Oct 27, 2020


   Racism is the belief that humans are divided into separate and exclusive biological entities and that certain races are innately superior to others. This is implemented into political, economic, and legal institutions and systems that perpetuate discrimination which has been ingraved into society. Racism has been a term since the early 1900s, and its still quite prevalent within society in the 20th century.

Environmental Racism

    Within the Environmental Justice Movement, there is a concept that is becoming a more common topic called environmental racism. The dictionary definition is the placement of low-income or minority communities in the proximity of environmentally hazardous or degraded environments, such as toxic waste, pollution and urban decay. However, many still haven’t fully grasped the concept of environmental racism. This article aims to give you a better understanding by providing examples, specifically in Chicago.


    Chicago’s communities are extremely segregated and the differences between predominantly white neighborhoods and POC neighborhoods are visibly evident.

Lead Paint Problem 

   Lead paint was frequently used in houses, but was banned in 1978. However, communities such as the south side of Chicago are still experiencing lead poisoning due to the fact that many still live in old houses that have never removed the toxic paint. In 2015 over ⅕ of children tested from some of the poorest neighborhoods in Chicago suffered from lead poisoning. Kids ages five and younger continue to be harmed at rates up to six times the city average in predominantly black communities in Chicago.

Food Deserts

A food desert is an urban area in which it is difficult to buy affordable and good-quality fresh food, instead resorting to cheaper processed, packaged, and unhealthy foods. This is a big problem in Chicago that creates major negative health impacts.In Chicago, african americans make up almost 80% of the population of persistently low food access areas. This leads to higher rates or chronic illnesses such as diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.

I believe that it is important to give this article a holistic approach to the topic, and elevate the different voices of people who live in this city. It is due to this that I asked five people who live in chicago two questions to provide different perspectives on environmental racism. 

Nicole Wood Chi- Attorney at the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

Q1: What does environmental racism mean to you?

A: When I think of environmental racism, I think of unfair treatment of people based on race, color, national origin or income in respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies. This unfair treatment is evident in the lack of access to clean air, water, and land in lower income areas and in areas where the population is predominantly not white. Another way environmental racism rears its ugly head is in denying certain groups of people an opportunity for meaningful participation and cleanup action in their communities.

Q2: Specifically in Chicago, what examples of environmental racism have you seen, and what is being done about it?

A:  Many of the lower income neighborhoods in Chicago were established/developed around lead smelter sites, foundries, and power plants. This was in part because the low income workers wanted to live close to where they worked and many of them worked at smelters, foundries, and power plants. Unfortunately, there were lasting negative health impacts due to living and working in those facilities. Chicago has closed most of its foundries, smelters, and coal-fired power plants, and Chicago also has a very active environmental justice community.

Jessica Mack (@jjeccisa)- Incredible creative writer, activist, attends BISC 

Q1: What does environmental racism mean to you?

A:  Environmental racism refers to the reality that neighborhoods with larger minority or POC populations have larger environmental hazards such as pollution, garbage dumps, and waste facilities.

Q2: Specifically in Chicago, what examples of environmental racism have you seen or experienced?

A: Since I live in Lincoln Park, a predominantly white neighborhood, my experience with environmental racism is only knowledge and not direct.

Amani Ogundeko (@a.0.1919)- Amazing artist, activist, and lover of fashion attends BISC

Q1: What does environmental racism mean to you?

A:   Environmental racism is how minorities are placed in areas with hazardous and toxic facilities, high pollution, and other harmful factors that can impact an individuals quality of life. This links with the Black Lives Matter movement  and many other minority movements due to the fact that it further highlights how America was built only to aid one group of citizens and not a whole country. A country that says it cares about their citizens as well as continuously preaches the power of the people, yet let so many live in areas that no one wants to live in due to being toxic for human life. Environmental racism is heavily influenced and links with how real estate and housing was done previously in America. Minorities were forced into certain areas because of their race. Furthermore, things such as redlining were introduced which meant certain places wouldn’t get funded or invested due to the demographic that lived in that particular area. A lack of funding meant there wouldn’t be help for minorities to improve their areas by making them safer. This to me is why minority groups are still living in harmful and toxic areas because the investment for change wasn’t there in the past. The way real estate and housing was done in the U.S lead to minority groups being forced into areas whites didn’t want to live due to the lack of development and these areas being near waste facilities, garbage dumps, and other sources of pollution.

Q2: Specifically in Chicago, what examples of environmental racism have you seen or experienced?

A:  Chicago is a very segregated city. It’s split into areas where most of the time minorities live in underdeveloped, harsh areas. This again has to do with the systematic real estate and housing in the U.S that forced minorities into places around Chicago that weren’t selling such as the south side and west side. Chicago also has problems with urban renewal and gentrification(even on the south side and west side), this meant areas began to have a high-income level and market value and again, forced minorities out to other areas. Some believe urban renewal and gentrification is good however, the issue is that the market value rapidly increases where people can’t maintain living there.The change in the area is helping the wrong people and reasons. When looking at Chicago, it’s visible that there isn’t as much investment into minority neighborhoods that need infrastructure and help to make areas safer for everyone. These minority groups can experience more health problems due to increasing exposure to pollution such as lead poisoning and asthma.  

Raina Lewis (@rainalewisss)- Activist, and performer/actor, Attends Chi Arts 

Q1: What does environmental racism mean to you?

A: If I’m going to be honest, I’m actually not sure of the full meaning of environmental racism, but I have an idea of it. To me, environmental racism is the lack of resources in certain communities. It means the government is only funding communities with a higher economic rate which are usually white suburban neighborhoods. 

Q2: Specifically in Chicago, what examples of environmental racism have you seen or experienced?

A: Examples I’ve seen in Chicago regarding this are, neighborhood school closings, stores without fresh fruits and vegetables, abandoned buildings around the area, and also gentrification. There is also a lack of job opportunities in low income areas therefore people resort to doing illegal things to survive. Also there is racial profiling by the police due to being “looked at” a certain way. I’ve seen black teens getting stopped just for walking around an area where people don’t believe they belong. Suburban white neighborhoods, in comparison to North Lawndale you don’t see a lot of abandoned buildings and broken down schools because the government funds/invests in those areas with higher income rates. There are places like Bridgeport and Cicero where POC are scared to go to because historically those environments tend to be racists towards POC. In conclusion, this is my take on environmental racism.

Ash Baylock (@llashb)- Beautiful poet, writer, and activist, Attends Chi Arts 

(On their experience with racism in Chicago)   

    I have experienced something called internalized racism. The main way that I have experienced internalized racism was feeling like I should allow racism towards myself and others. Growing up, I allowed my closest friends to say N***a. It wasn’t in a way where I didn’t care if they did, it was in fear of losing them, even though that should have been something I was trying to do. I told them it was bad, but they didn’t care. Even though I was put in tough spots, I never reported it, so it continued; and when it was, we were blamed. We “encouraged non-black people” to say racist horrible things to us. So I let myself be called a slave, monkey ect. Even going to high school I suffered blatant racism from my best friend, still trying to play it off even though at that point, I was extremely educated and passionate about social justice. He has a past of being racist towards others and I allowed it. Fortunately like I’ve stated, I have found that my identity and my community’s struggles are more important than validation from others.

With the current times we live in we all need to understand and empathize with each other, if you have never experienced racism and colorism, featurism, or texturism, reflect on what has been shared in this article and what you have learned. We can’t continue to neglect this fight.

Written by Julia Soukaras

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