Analyzing Environmental Racism

This lesson has students examine data that show that disproportionately high percentages of people of color are being adversely affected by the oil spill cleanup.
Grade Level


Activities will help students:

  • define environmental justice and environmental racism.
  • calculate how disposal of waste from the Gulf oil spill disproportionately affects people of color.
  • use maps and graphs to analyze data about Gulf oil spill waste disposal.
  • summarize, present findings, and draw conclusions.
Essential Questions
  • What is environmental justice?
  • What makes the Gulf oil spill an environmental justice concern?
  • How can maps and graphs show inequality and injustice?


environmental justice [ en-vahy-ruhn-muhnt-l juhs-tis ] (noun) the fair treatment of people of all races, cultures, incomes, and educational levels with respect to the development and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies

environmental racism [ en-vahy-ruhn-muhnt-l rey-siz-uhm ] (noun) racial discrimination in environmental policy, such as targeting communities of color as sites for polluting industries and waste disposal



1. In April 2010, an offshore oil-drilling rig exploded. For months, millions of gallons of oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico. What do you know about the oil spill? Share what you know. Make a list of what you know either on the board or on chart paper. Look over the list. What’s being done with the waste collected from the spill?

2. You’ve probably heard or read about cleanup of the Gulf, the Gulf Coast and other areas that have been affected by the spill. But have you thought about what exactly is being cleaned up? And have you thought about what’s being done with the waste that has been collected in the cleanup? That’s the focus of this lesson. Read Handout 1: Waste From the Oil Spill: FAQs

3. Now look closely at where the waste is going. Study the map and the graphs: “Here’s Where BP Is Dumping Its Oil Spill Waste”. Use Handout 2: Calculating Who’s Getting the Waste to help you figure out where the impact of waste disposal is being felt most. 

4. Read “BP’s Waste Management Plan Raises Environmental Justice Concerns”. As you read, make notes to answer these questions:

a. Why were residents of African-American communities skeptical about where BP was going to dump oil spill waste? What has been their history with waste disposal?

b. To which site has the largest amount of oil spill waste gone? What percentage of people in the nearby community are people of color?

c. What does Executive Order 12898 say? How does the situation with oil spill waste relate to that executive order? (This step can be skipped if this text is too challenging.)

5. As a class, discuss what you’ve learned. Why do you think the majority of the waste is going to landfills in communities where the majority of residents are people of color?

6. Now present your findings. Working on your own or with a partner, choose a format to exhibit your findings (e.g., design a Web page) that include the following:

a. Definitions of environmental justice and environmental racism

b. A statement of what you have discovered about Gulf oil spill waste disposal and environmental racism.

c. A graph or graphics that show the data that support your statement.

d. A paragraph that sums up in words what your graphics show and explains why this is an issue of environmental racism.

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Welcome to Learning for Justice—Formerly Teaching Tolerance!

Our work has evolved in the last 30 years, from reducing prejudice to tackling systemic injustice. So we’ve chosen a new name that better reflects that evolution: Learning for Justice.

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