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Confronting Disproportionate Impacts and Systemic Racism in Environmental Policy

March 2021

Citation: 51 ELR 10207

Issue: 3

Author: Charles Lee

Understanding and operationalizing the concept of disproportionate impacts are critical to the next generation of environmental justice (EJ) practice. This Article charts a pathway to better defining, articulating, and analyzing disproportionate impacts in a manner that is empirically based, analytically rigorous, and has an evidentiary link to systemic racism and the roots of the inequitable distribution of environmental burdens and benefits. It offers a framework for integrating these concepts into environmental decisionmaking, which can help overcome the current stagnation in EJ practice and address the quarter-century old conundrum created by EJ Executive Order No. 12898’s unclarity on the subject. Finally, the Article links future EJ practice to the national conversation about systemic racism, and discusses how conditions for making progress have never been better since the author began to work on an issue that did not even have a name some 40 years ago.

A true pioneer in the arena of environmental justice, Charles Lee was principal author of the landmark report Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States, organized the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, and helped spearhead the emergence of federal environmental justice policy. He is currently the Senior Policy Advisor for Environmental Justice at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

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