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News & Blog > Blogs: "Perspectives, Provocations & Initiatives" > Environmental racism in the UK is real. Anti-racism is the answer

Environmental racism in the UK is real. Anti-racism is the answer

Environmental injustice within a racialised context is environmental racism – a branch of institutional racism in which the realities are evident in the UK. Anti-racism is the only effective response.
Socialist Appeal, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons
Socialist Appeal, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Many socio-economic factors influence the likelihood of an area’s exposure to environmental pollution, and one unequivocal indicator in the UK is race.

Environmental racism is expressed in various forms and can be observed on all scales. The most well-discussed is that on a global scale, whereby BIPOC communities are disproportionately impacted by climate change, whilst they are contributing to the crisis the least in terms of emissions.

Less well-discussed are these issues occurring within the national context; official sanctions of pollutants within minority communities, and the disproportionate impact of these communities exposed to the greatest levels of air pollution are just two examples of the realities being faced today.

When we hear of these national-scale issues, it’s common for us in the UK to think straight to the case of the U.S. where they are notorious for the placement of toxic waste sites in shockingly close proximity to POC. However, the UK is not innocent. When we understand and rightly acknowledge this, it gives context to the heart-breaking case of Ella Kissi-Debrah.

Ella was 9 years old when she passed away following an asthma attack in South-East London in 2013. Over 7 years later, in December 2020, a judge ruled that ‘excessive air pollution’ was a contributing factor to her death. This comes as no surprise when we are made aware that the levels of pollution at the Catford monitoring station, just one mile from Ella’s family home, consistently surpassed EU pollution limits for the three years prior to her death. As such, Ella’s death certificate was the first in UK history to have this listed as a cause of death.

Ella’s case alone is one too many and highlights the devastating reality of environmental racism in the UK. Effective action must be taken. We can no longer afford to put in place incremental changes that leave no positive outcomes for the people most effected; we must strive for transformative change and we must do it now.

How do we ignite transformative change?

Transformative change will only be made possible when we understand the roots of environmental racism. In order to do this, we must fully address centuries of institutional racism. The rise of capitalism in Europe was facilitated through the existence of racist ideologies, using ethno-racial hierarchies to sustain colonial processes and leading to Black communities within the UK.

Domination of such a system would never have occurred if not for this incessant exploitation of labour through coloniality of power, all in the name of profit for colonial nations and their citizens. The use of ethno-racial hierarchies as a technique to exploit Black people for labour invoked hostility of working-class White people towards Black people, as a means to sustain this system in pursuit of capital.

These racist ideologies have perpetuated within conscious and unconscious biases and passed through generations where they are expressed within today’s society. Within environmentalism, institutional racism is evident in the lack of racial diversity among leadership of major environmental organisations and corporate chief sustainability officers in the UK. Within the private and public sectors, the percentages of Black employees holding top leadership roles are 1.5% and 1% respectively.

For far too long, White people have dominated the conversation within these organisations. The result is the systematic exclusion of POC in decision-making processes.

It should not take the case of Ella Kissi-Debrah to highlight the consequences of these issues. We know we must address them head on, but instead we are met with inertia at many points of change. This is a crisis in leadership.

However, this inertia comes as no shock when the government itself refuses to acknowledge these issues.

What role does the government play?

Boris Johnson’s government recently published a report reframing the slave trade as a positive force for the ‘making of Modern Britain’. Not only does this gaslight the experiences of every individual it perpetuates institutional racism towards but also acts as an internal justification for inertia within the current government. I believe that this claim on race and ethnic disparities in itself is the perfect example of how institutional racism is sustained and operates in the UK.

It is vital to unpack this report and the composition of the commission, specifically the appointment of Dr Tony Sewell as Chair. This is the same man who has voiced publicly his hatred of the term ‘racial injustice’ and that institutional racism doesn’t exist. If this corruption wasn’t already sufficiently transparent, historian of Black Britain, Stephen Bourne, tweeted of his ‘horror’ following an invitation to Downing Street for a conversation which has been used within the report without consent. This notion of corruption which has been implied by these appointments is reinforced with the act of resignation by Samuel Kasumu, the PM’s top Black advisor, following the publication of this report.

When made aware of this, I find it extremely difficult to view Dr Sewell’s role as any more than a partisan of culture war - Johnson knew the outcome of this report before it had even begun. Existence and extent of institutional racism in the UK cannot be denied any longer - it’s time for politicians to finally acknowledge the violent colonial history of this country.

This act of propaganda will not be tolerated.

So, what can we do?

Instead of anchoring our ideas within questionably sourced data, we must listen to, and amplify the voices of real lived experiences from minority groups. For too long, White people have dominated the conversation and this must change. Anti-racism is the answer.

Prioritising equity amongst leadership should not be considered radical or progressive. We must advocate to redress environmental damages from greed and corruption in the form of greater diversity and transparency within decision-making processes.

Owning mistakes and making direct action to work towards accountability and reparation is essential. Only when we acknowledge the intersectionality of racial justice and environmental justice, will transformative change occur.

‘Leaderful means there is enough room for all of us. Seeing everyone roll in together is much more powerful than having one or two people speak for everyone. Being inter-generationally leaderful also generates the best ideas and solutions...We need to do this together, and we can do it lovingly.’ – Elizabeth Yeampierre, Executive Director, UPROSE.

Things to read around the topic of environmental racism:

  • Diversifying Power – Jennie Stephens
  • There’s something in the water – Ingrid Waldron
  • All we can save – Ayana Elizbeth Johnson & Katherine Wilkinson

This is one a series of blogs supported by the IDS alumni office and written by current IDS students and PhD Researchers from academic year 2020-2021 Spring Term.

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