Discrimination, Vulnerability, and Justice in the Face of Risk


* Address correspondence to Terre A. Satterfield, Faculty of Graduate Studies, 2206 East Mall, Rm 472, Institute for Resources, the Environment, and Sustainability, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC V6T 1Z3 Canada.


Recent research finds that perceived risk is closely associated with race and gender. In surveys of the American public a subset of white males stand out for their uniformly low perceptions of environmental health risks, while most nonwhite and nonmale respondents reveal higher perceived risk. Such findings have been attributed to the advantageous position of white males in American social life. This article explores the linked possibility that this demographic pattern is driven not simply by the social advantages or disadvantages embodied in race or gender, but by the subjective experience of vulnerability and by sociopolitical evaluations pertaining to environmental injustice. Indices of environmental (in)justice and social vulnerability were developed as part of a U.S. National Risk Survey (n= 1,192) in order to examine their effect on perceived risk. It was found that those who regarded themselves as vulnerable and supported belief statements consistent with the environmental justice thesis offered higher risk ratings across a range of hazards. Multivariate analysis indicates that our measures of vulnerability and environmental (in)justice predict perceived risk but do not account for all of the effects of race and gender. The article closes with a discussion of the implications of these findings for further work on vulnerability and risk, risk communication, and risk management practices generally.