Juneteenth and Environmental Justice

Though Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, it took until June 19, 1865, for more than 250,000 African-Americans in Galveston, Texas to be liberated from the shackles of cattle slavery by Union troops. This day of liberation became known as Juneteenth (a combination of June and nineteenth) by the newly freed people of Texas and was celebrated as a day of emancipation for millions of Black Americans. Texas became the first state to acknowledge Juneteenth as a holiday in 1980, but it took until 2021 for President Biden to formally recognize Juneteenth as a federal holiday.

In looking at the many systemic challenges Black Americans have faced since 1865 and continue to face today, we must not overlook the negative effects of environmental racism and the inequitable suffering placed on Black Americans when it comes to climate change, landfills, and water pollution among many more environmental hazards.

Environmental racism refers to the systemic practice of disproportionately exposing marginalized racial and ethnic communities to environmental hazards while denying them access to safe, clean, and affordable resources to remedy these hazards. The term was coined by *Dr. Benjamin during a protest opposing a hazardous disposal facility in Warren County, North Carolina. Environmental racism manifests through discriminatory policies and laws that perpetuate environmental inequality.

Let’s look at some examples of these environmental hazards. 

Water Pollution

Black communities are disproportionately affected by unsafe drinking water, a product of inadequate water infrastructure resulting from a history of marginalization, housing discrimination, and segregation. The Flint Water Crisis is one of the most devastating drinking water catastrophes in recent U.S. history, which has disparately threatened Black and Brown communities. Even now, ten years after thousands of Flint families suffered grave health effects from improperly treated river water, the federal government has failed to provide the amount of overall investment needed to adequately address the crisis, especially for poorer Black communities that have suffered decades of resource and wealth extraction. 

Air Pollution

The burden of air pollution is not evenly shared. Those who live in predominantly Black communities suffer greater risks of premature death from particle pollution than those who live in predominately white communities. Black Americans are at a higher risk of premature death from air pollution compared to other races regardless of income level. Black people tend to be at a greater risk for hazardous air pollutants, such as those from traffic sources because of their proximity to highway industrial zones and lack of green spaces–a product of decades of racial segregation. In fact, Black Americans are exposed to more pollution from every type of source—industry, agriculture, all manner of vehicles, construction, residential sources, and even emissions from restaurants.

Toxic Waste and Chemicals

Black communities are more likely to be chosen for the placement of landfills, incinerators, and hazardous waste sites, leading to high exposure to toxic substances. The industrial corridor along the lower Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge has been nicknamed Cancer Alley because of its high concentration of petrochemical facilities. Communities in Cancer Alley exist side by side with some 200 fossil fuel operations. Parts of Cancer Alley have the highest cancer risk from industrial pollution in the nation. Other health hazards the residents of Cancer Alley face include respiratory ailments, premature births, and low birth weight, the second leading cause of death among infants in the United States

Lead Poisoning

Lead poisoning disproportionately affects the Black community in America. Children are four to five times more likely to absorb lead than adults and Black children are more likely to suffer from lead poisoning than other races because of the prevalence of older, poorly maintained housing with lead-based paint in their communities. Chronic lead poisoning in children can lead to slowed body growth, anemia, hearing loss, and neurological weakness, especially in the later stages of life. Even with efforts to address this disparity, Black communities still have higher blood lead levels than people of other races.

Heat Islands

Black Americans, more than other groups, live in neighborhoods prone to excess heat. A survey conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showed that temperatures in historically Black neighborhoods were seven to ten degrees higher than in affluent areas where more white people lived. Blocks in Black neighborhoods had less shady tree cover, received minimal air conditioning, and were closer to heat-generating roadways. Black Americans’ exposure to heat islands came as a result of redlining: federal housing practices created after the Great Depression that ensured Blacks and other people of color were left out of new suburban communities and instead pushed into urban housing projects. Extreme heat has numerous negative effects including cramps, exhaustion, and heatstroke. Extreme heat can amplify existing health conditions such as diabetes and asthma and increase rates of suicide, depression, and premature births. 


In looking at the disparities Black Americans face with environmental racism, Emory must hold a firm commitment to addressing the environmental hazards disproportionately faced by people of color. Currently, Emory is working on its Sustainability Vision and Strategic Plan 2025-2036 and we plan to address Sustainability Development Goal 10: Reduced Inequalities. In our Implementation Plan, we stated actions meant to address these inequalities:

  • Improve air quality through enforcing Emory’s No Idling policy and other pollution prevention actions.
  • Expand transportation options for employees and students through bike share, Cliff shuttle, and public transit.
  • Work with local municipalities and partners to develop a resilience assessment and plan for the greater Emory community that addresses health, personal well-being, and climate adaptation concerns.


Learn how you can help us accomplish these goals and more, here.  



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Disparities in the impact of Air Pollution. American Lung Association. (n.d.). https://www.lung.org/clean-air/outdoors/who-is-at-risk/disparities

Environmental & Climate Justice Issue Brief: Clean Water. NAACP. (2024, February 15). https://naacp.org/resources/environmental-climate-justice-issue-brief-clean-water#:~:text=Many%20communities%2C%20especially%20the%20Black,communities%20and%20communities%20of%20color.

GBH. (2023, March 27). Environmental justice: Opposing a toxic waste landfill. PBS LearningMedia. https://gpb.pbslearningmedia.org/resource/envh10.sci.life.eco.envracism/environmental-justice-opposing-a-toxic-waste-landfill/

Gladstone, S. (2024, April 22). 10 years after Flint water crisis, much action still needed across nation. Food & Water Watch. https://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/2024/04/22/10-years-after-flint-water-crisis-much-action-still-needed-across-nation/#:~:text=As%20a%20result%2C%20improperly%20treated,out%20for%20decades%20to%20come.

Gross, T. (2017, May 3). A “forgotten history” of how the U.S. government segregated America. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2017/05/03/526655831/a-forgotten-history-of-how-the-u-s-government-segregated-america

Juhasz, A. (2024, May 30). “we’re dying here.” Human Rights Watch. https://www.hrw.org/report/2024/01/25/were-dying-here/fight-life-louisiana-fossil-fuel-sacrifice-zone

Newsome, M. (2024, February 20). Discrimination has trapped people of color in unhealthy urban “heat islands.” Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/discrimination-has-trapped-people-of-color-in-unhealthy-urban-heat-islands/#:~:text=A%20new%20analysis%20of%20481,follow%20wealth%20and%20poverty%20levels.

O’Connell-Domenech, A. (2024, January 26). Pregnant women in “cancer alley” more likely to give birth prematurely and to babies with low birth weight: Report. The Hill. https://thehill.com/changing-america/well-being/prevention-cures/4428143-pregnant-women-cancer-alley-more-likely-give-birth-prematurely-babies-low-birth-weight-report/

Sampson, S. (2023, April 6). Lead poisoning: Symptoms, in children, in adults, causes. Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/306601#causes

Smithsonian . (2024, May 29). Juneteenth. National Museum of African American History and Culture. https://nmaahc.si.edu/juneteenth#:~:text=On%20June%2019%2C%201865%2C%20nearly,as%20Juneteenth%20or%20Freedom%20Day

Tabuchi, H., & Popovich, N. (2021, April 28). People of color breathe more hazardous air. the sources are everywhere. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/28/climate/air-pollution-minorities.html

The United States Government. (2023, June 27). A proclamation on Juneteenth Day of Observance, 2023. The White House. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2023/06/16/a-proclamation-on-juneteenth-day-of-observance-2023/#:~:text=BIDEN%20JR.%2C%20President%20of%20the,as%20Juneteenth%20Day%20of%20Observance. 

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