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When it comes to risk, everyone needs to be heard

Minority and marginalized groups must have a voice in environmental risk governance.

This upbringing has shaped my life and the work I do as an academic. My research examines how minority and marginalized communities understand risk to or from the environment and how they make decisions to mitigate these risks. 

Traditionally, the study of risk has come from a highly technical and quantitative perspective, discounting the importance of emotions and perception in how people understand and react to risk. And the process has traditionally been controlled by the elites of society, such as academics, scientists and bureaucrats. What’s lacking is the perspective of lay stakeholders, particularly minority stakeholders. 

In other words, the study, communication and management of risk — aka “risk governance” — neglects the input and viewpoint of those who regularly encounter risks such as those associated with nuclear power and waste disposal, and therefore gives them little say in how these risks are regulated. In a democratic society this is untenable.

Communication and management of risk — aka “risk governance” — neglects the input and viewpoint of those who regularly encounter risks such as those associated with nuclear power and waste disposal, and therefore gives them little say in how these risks are regulated. In a democratic society this is untenable

Research has led to the development of a risk governance model that is supposedly inclusive, emphasizing the interaction between representatives from the sciences, politics, economics and civil society. And yet, minority and marginalized populations are still largely excluded from this model. This is particularly concerning given that such populations face the greatest chance of exposure to a number of environmental hazards. For example, in the United States, 80 per cent of Hispanics and 65 per cent of African Americans live in areas that fail to meet US Environmental Protection Agency air quality standards, compared to only 57 per cent of whites. Furthermore, people meeting the federal poverty income standard of $23,550 per year for a family of four are much more likely to face greater risk from air pollution than other Americans. Improving understanding of how minority and marginalized groups assess or perceive environmental and social risks is a critical first step in including these populations in risk governance. 

There exists an idea that African-American and other minority communities are homogeneous in terms of risk perception. Research my colleagues and I have conducted shows this not to be the case.

In one study we examined the perception of risk in the African-American community using the “white male effect,” or WME, as a starting point — an idea based on prior research that says well-educated and politically conservative white males (the category into which many policymakers fall) tend to perceive lower levels of risk from a range of hazards than do other groups (e.g., white women, nonwhite women and men). Our study asked whether a phenomenon similar to the WME could be found in the African-American community. Focusing on a cross section of the African-American community (with diverse age, education and income), we found perception of risk from a number of hazards to human and environmental health varied significantly depending on the view of the natural environment. In fact, we found a segment of the African-American community — individuals who show a low level of concern for the natural environment — whose perception of risk is similar to that of well-educated and politically conservative white males.

In another study we looked at the perception of risks to human health and the environment posed by concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in western Michigan. This study examined the risk perceptions of an entire community but focused heavily on Hispanic populations, particularly migrant laborers who work in or have family members who work in CAFOs. We found that community perceptions of risk differed significantly among demographic groups. Hispanic community members, especially men, were more likely to perceive the employment benefits of CAFOs as being more important and the likelihood of environmental pollution or human health effects to be less important than non-Hispanic community members. In contrast, women (both Hispanic and non-Hispanic) were more likely than men to see the potential environmental pollution effects of CAFOs as more important and the economic benefits as less important. Anecdotal interview data from farm workers suggests this is probably because male Hispanic populations in the area rely largely on industrial farms for their livelihood and therefore tend to discount the risk they encounter at work. Hispanic women, on the other hand, have a more negative view of CAFOs, perhaps because they experience the negative ramifications of their partner’s employment at a CAFO, such as chronic illness associated with pesticide exposure. 

These findings have major implications for the inclusion of minority and marginalized populations in the governance of environmental risk. First, they suggest that minority stakeholders need to be brought into the risk assessment and management discourse. Second they suggest that, once they are, we cannot assume they speak with a monolithic voice. Different subgroups must be represented to accurately portray diverse perspectives. Furthermore, policymakers need to recognize that, for many minority and marginalized groups, the discussion of environmental health cannot be separated from health and economic considerations.

Keeping minority and marginalized voices absent from discussions around risk governance, or acting as though all minority and marginalized communities speak with one voice, is unjust. Finding a way to bring them to the table and recognizing their differences is the only way to properly address the risks we all face.

 Louie Rivers III is an assistant professor at NC State University. This post originally appeared in Ensia.

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