Social History for Every Classroom


Social History for Every Classroom

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Environmental (In)Justice

Protestors in Warren County, North Carolina. 1982. Photograph.
Photographer, Ricky Stilley, Courtesy of The Washington Post.

The environment is an interconnected system that supports human, plant, and animal life. The environment has also been continually impacted by human decision-making. Environmental conditions have played a critical role in shaping political, social, and economic developments in American history since Europeans began colonizing and slavery. Over time, American land usage and environmental policy have had a disproportionately negative impact on people of color, working class, and poor communities. While some people have been confined to racially segregated neighborhoods and workplaces that endangered their health, others were forcibly relocated to reservations or displaced through 'urban renewal' projects that severed their connections to historically and culturally significant places. In addition, many public and private efforts to build and "modernize" cities, recreational spaces, and manufacturing plants have negatively affected these communities, leading to further harmful environmental impacts. Scholars typically refer to this phenomenon as "environmental racism," a form of slow violence which impacts health outcomes, food sources, quality of life, working conditions, and access to clean water. In response, groups primarily led by people of color have demanded justice in their communities and organized coalitions and movements to stop or reverse conditions caused by environmental racism. Struggles against environmental racism continue today, especially as communities respond to the growing influence of climate change. Some recent examples include lead contaminated water in Flint, Michigan, battles to prevent the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the lack of government assistance during Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. 

The documents and teaching activities in this collection explore histories of environmental injustices and efforts to combat them. Topics include: land usage, food and water access, civil rights activism, environmental disasters and climate change. The materials in this collection are a part of a larger ASHP project called Past/Present, which aims to help students see links between history and current events. 

The collection is designed to encourage students to consider these essential questions:

  1. Who “owns” the land? What are they “allowed” to do with it?

  2. How have communities of Black, Indigenous, and people of color resisted harmful environmental policies and their impact on their communities?

  3. How have public and private property owners (corporations, the military, governments) perpetuated racial and economic disparities through their use of land and natural resources?

  4. What is environmental justice, and how does it fit into the larger environmentalism movement?

  5. How have environmental policies, and their uneven enforcement, failed to protect communities of color?

  6. How do humans impact the environment?

In This Collection