Environmental Justice Beyond Race: Skin Tone and Exposure to Air Pollution

Discussion Paper
21 March 2024

Sandra Aguilar-Gomez, Juan-Camilo Cárdenas, Ricardo Salas Díaz


Driven by environmental justice activism and policy reforms, recent social science research conducted mostly in the US has documented the greater environmental degradation faced by marginalized communities. Yet, the ethnoracial categories used in these studies may not fully capture environmental inequality in the Global South. This study presents novel findings that quantify and decompose the link between skin tone and ambient air pollution exposure in Colombia, moving beyond conventional race and ethnicity variables. By matching household geolocations with satellite-based pollution measures, we find that skin tone —even more than predetermined ethnoracial categories— predicts both initial pollution levels and their changes over time. Darker-skinned individuals encounter more significant pollution increases, even after controlling for ethnoracial self-identification. These patterns hold among migrants and non-migrants, indicating that sorting and siting contribute to these disparities. Our results underline the importance of considering skin tone in environmental justice discussions, particularly in contexts where traditional race and ethnicity classifications fall short.

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Publication reference
Aguilar-Gomez, S., Cárdenas, J.-C., & Salas Díaz, R. (2024). Environmental Justice Beyond Race: Skin Tone and Exposure to Air Pollution. SSRN Electronic Journal. https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4742122
Publication | 20 March 2024