Grid talks with professor and author Dorceta Taylor about how communities of color became ground zero for toxic industries


Why is it that low-income and communities of color bear the brunt of industrial pollution? And when environmentally hazardous facilities move into their neighborhoods, why don’t people leave?

These are some of the questions that guide the environmental justice movement, which seeks to address the disproportionate environmental harm marginalized communities face. Dorceta Taylor, professor of environmental justice at the Yale School of the Environment, is one of the movement’s preeminent scholars. In her 2014 book, “Toxic Communities: Environmental Racism, Industrial Pollution, and Residential Mobility,” Taylor takes a critical eye to the questions and theories which guide the modern-day environmental movement.

Through case studies of various neighborhoods that have been subjected to decades of industrial pollution — ‘Cancer Alley’ in Louisiana; uranium mining on the Navajo reservation across Utah, New Mexico and Arizona; a hazardous waste landfill in Emelle, Alabama — Taylor examines why low-income communities of color are disproportionately living near industrial pollution, how these environmental hazards affect their physical health and economies, and importantly, why people don’t move.

Scholar Dorceta Taylor studies how communities of color bear the brunt of heavy industry and waste facilities.

This interview was edited for clarity.

You write about famous examples of environmental injustice, such as Louisiana’s Cancer Alley and the polychlorinated biphenyl landfill in Warren County, North Carolina. How do people of color — in particular, Black Americans — end up living in these communities in the first place? In the early ’90s, an argument started to be floated by researchers, primarily white researchers, who argued that it’s a chicken-or-egg problem: Black people and other people of color move to neighborhoods that are cheaper. Those neighborhoods are more affordable because they’re tainted, they have industrial facilities, they have waste dumps, et cetera. My first reaction to that was, show me which person on the planet deliberately gets up and moves their children and themselves into a neighborhood to live beside a waste dump or toxic facility?

I document extensively in “Toxic Communities” that the waste dump was moved into people of color’s neighborhood in many instances. People have been in Cancer Alley since slavery. They didn’t move to live beside those facilities. Those facilities came to be beside their neighborhoods.

Why is it that industries seek out these particular communities? Back in the 1980s, a document came out called the Cerrell Report. It was a report that was done in California as this waste company was looking for a place to put its new incinerator that was going to spew cancer-causing pollutants into the air. They don’t necessarily go and look for a Black neighborhood. What [the report] says is [they look] for communities that have low educational attainment, low-income, high unemployment, low engagement with community organizations that can organize them. They’re looking for people with very little ability to refuse the sites.

What we do see are those kinds of criteria mapping very closely to low-income communities of color; communities where most people speak a foreign language that hinders how you understand the social political structure, how you’re connected to it, how you’re able to organize, and can you fight effectively to stop these facilities from coming to your neighborhood. We see this practice all the time. Robert Bullard in his work in Houston in the 1980s, he and his wife took some of these cases to court because there were six waste dumps in the city of Houston and five of the six were in low-income Black communities.

These facilities often say they’re going to bring in jobs, and they promise to fund schools and community programs. So what are some trade-offs that these industries typically involve community members in and how else are residents manipulated to invite these hazardous facilities in? And quite often the communities don’t invite them in. Quite often, the communities find out by sheer accident that they’re coming in or don’t find out until the facility’s built. In some cases, the facility that is built as a waste dump, eventually opens up an incinerator and the community did not ever sign off on an incinerator. When these organizations say, ‘We will sponsor the basketball league’ or ‘We will help to provide funding for kids to go on field trips,’ that’s a very small amount of money compared to what they make on the facilities.

Why is it important to examine historical processes of racial segregation — such as racial zoning covenants, urban renewal and blinding — with regards to contemporary environmental justice? The historical context matters, and it brings me to another reason why I wrote the book: Overtime, I noticed more and more scholars, students, activists — they weren’t embedding what was going on in places like Detroit with understanding how redlining and residential segregation forced people of color, primarily Blacks, into certain neighborhoods. And once they’re corralled in those neighborhoods, their garbage doesn’t get picked up, they don’t get sewer systems, the housing is terrible, and they cannot move out of these neighborhoods. Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York, Atlanta — you name virtually any city of significant size in the U.S., and see racial zoning that forced people to live in some of the unhealthiest neighborhoods.

It is not that easy to just pick up and move. If you’re in Cancer Alley and you’re living beside the Shell facility, your house is worth virtually $0 on the market, because who’s gonna buy it from you?”

— Dorceta E. Taylor

You mentioned in your research that many communities of color actually want to move out of these communities. So why don’t people just move away? It is not that easy to just pick up and move. If you’re in Cancer Alley and you’re living beside the Shell facility, your house is worth virtually $0 on the market, because who’s gonna buy it from you? And so if your property value is at zero — if you’re a renter, and you cannot find any place else to live — then you tend to stay because some shelter is better than zero shelter at all. In Native American communities, there are ties to the land that go back generations, and it’s the foods that are religious and sacred that they gather. It’s the animals, it’s the plants, it’s the trees. And so it’s a lot more complicated than just thinking a noxious facility is coming into your neighborhood and you want to move.

A very common justification used by politicians is that it’s necessary for these communities to bear the burden of a landfill or an oil refinery for the “greater good of the nation.” What have you found to be the main flaws in this point of view? When you constantly ask the same one or two groups of people to bear all of the burden — and you excuse the same privileged group of people who never have to live beside these facilities and never have to work in them, but benefit from all of the money that these facilities generate — then something is fundamentally wrong. That argument becomes even more wrong when we look at a country like the U.S., that has been a racialized country for centuries, and a country that punishes certain racial groups for simply existing.

It also doesn’t encourage us to think about safe solutions: Do we need to do this process? How do we reduce our consumption footprint? Because as long as we have that convenient group of people to say, you take all the harm, you’re doing it for the good of the nation, a nation that you’re not benefiting from very much — we never get to the calculus of how we make things safe for everybody.

Dorceta E. Taylor. Photo by Ian Christmann.

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