Freeway systems can also be pointed as responsible for the weak economies of inner-city areas, seeing as they send consumers through and not into local business centers in these communities. The transition into a built environment in cities like Los Angeles where it is shaped to suit a freeway system that favors suburban development has resulted in major disadvantages to non-white communities in inner-city areas may be considered environmental racism. The third and last example is the set of prison reforms during the Progressive Era. As the increasing industrialization in American cities attracted newcomers looking for work, urban populations grew, as did poverty and crime rates. Many Progressives believed that people committed crimes due to environmental factors rather than because they had just chosen to commit a crime.
Progressive reformers brought their reforms into the criminal justice system, and the most significant changes addressed probation, parole, and sentencing. Probation, for example, is the concept of trying to rehabilitate a convicted criminal without sending that person to jail. Although the idea of probation was well-meaning, the execution of probation programs showed to be flawed. Costs of probation programs were placed on local governments, and seeing as most prisons are sited near low-income, poorly funded areas, this resulted in inadequate funding of probation programs and a production of underqualified probation officers in these areas. In addition to this, the probation system allowed for judges to rule in favor of middle-class and/or white offenders. According to environmental studies professor David Naguib Pellow, “tough on crime” and “war on drug” policies in addition to efforts to control forms of resistance from communities of color have resulted in drastic growths in the amount of incarcerated people in America.
African Americans, for example, only compose 6.8% of the California state population, yet make up roughly 30% of the state prison population. This becomes a significant environmental racism problem seeing as prisons have been found to be constructed on or near toxic sites, and even themselves become sources of contamination.
Prison siting often occurs near low-income communities, and problems like drinking-water contamination or exposure to pesticides are not rare health risks for prisoners and nearby residents. Prisons are not generally seen as locations for environmental problems; however, the entire prison system, from its institutionalized racism to its environmental risks is another example of how the Progressive Era paved a path for environmental racism. Although there were some achievements that improved conditions for African Americans and other non-white minorities, the Progressive Era marked a time period of extreme racial tensions.
Aside from the blatant racism of some reformers and their policies, there are changes and reforms that have been used for decades as vessels of environmental racism. Municipal cleanup, shifts in forms of transformation, and criminal justice reforms all seem to have benefitted society as a whole, but in closer inspection it is evident that they have also had significant repercussions in communities of color. Low-income and minority communities have had a relatively small amount of advocates and little representation within the environmental movement and at the national level, and raising awareness to these issues could be the first step in addressing them across the nation.