Fighting environmental racism

The environmental justice movement in the United States is different from the two previous currents of environmentalism in this country, namely, the efficient and sustainable use of natural resources (in the tradition of Gifford Pinchot), and the cult of wilderness (in the tradition of John Muir). As a self-conscious movement, environmental justice fights against the alleged disproportionate dumping of toxic waste or exposure to different sorts of environmental risk in areas of predominantly African-American, or Hispanic or Native American, populations. The language employed is not that of uncompensated externalities but rather the language of race discrimination, which is politically powerful in the USA because of the long Civil Rights struggle. In fact, the organized environmental justice movement is an outgrowth, not of previous currents of environmentalism, but of the Civil Rights movement. Some direct collaborators of Martin Luther King were among the 500 people arrested in the initial episode of the environmental justice movement, in the town of Afton in Warren County in North Carolina in 1982 (Bullard, 1993). Governor Hump had decided to locate a dump for PCB residues (polychlorinated biphenyls) in Warren County, which in 1980 had 16,000 inhabitants of whom 60 per cent were African-American, most of them under the poverty line. A NIMBY struggle escalated into a massive nonviolent protest with nationwide support when the first trucks arrived in 1982. [...] Its roots are in the African-American Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, also in the United Farm Workers' movement of Cesar Chavez which had gone on strike in 1965 against grape growers (who used pesticides which are now banned) and which worked together in 1968 with the Environmental Defence Fund in a short marriage of convenience for the prohibition of DDT to the benefit of birds' and human health. Martin Luther King's last journey to Memphis, Tennessee in April 1968 had been related to the improvement of working conditions of garbage disposal workers subject to health risks. [...]

Why were black people so totally absent from the governing bodies of the Sierra Club and other main environmental organizations, collectively known as the 'big ten'? The 'people of colour' environmental justice movement, fed up with 'white' environmentalism, pronounced itself initially against slogans such as 'Save the Rainforest', insisting on urban issues, and ignoring the fact that many rainforests are civilized jungles. Only some mainstream organizations, such as Greenpeace and the Earth Island Institute (founded by David Brower in San Francisco), responded quickly and favourably to the challenge of the environmental justice movement. In 1987, the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice published a study of the racial and socioeconomic characteristics of communities with hazardous waste sites. Subsequent studies confirmed that African-Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans and Latinos were more likely than other groups to find themselves near hazardous waste facilities. Other studies found that the average fine for violations of environmental norms in low-income or people of colour communities was significantly lower than fines imposed for violations in largely white neighbourhoods. Under the banner of fighting 'environmental racism' low-income groups, members of the working class and people of colour constituted a movement for environmental justice, which connected environmental issues with racial and gender inequality, and with poverty.

There are many cases of local environmental activism in the USA by 'citizen-workers groups' (Gould et al., 1996) outside the organized environmental justice movement, some with a hundred years' roots in the many struggles for health and safety in mines and factories, perhaps also in complaints against pesticides in southern cotton fields, and certainly 0

in the struggle against toxic waste at Love Canal in upstate New York 3 led by Lois Gibbs (Gibbs, 1981, 1995) who also later led a nationwide ^ 'toxics-struggles' movement showing that poor communities would not n tolerate any longer being dumping grounds (Gottlieb, 1993; Hofrichter, g

1993). In the 'official' environmental justice movement are included i celebrated episodes of collective action against incinerators (because of r the uncertain risk of dioxins), particularly in Los Angeles, led by women. IH Cerrell Associates had made known a study in 1984 in California on the -g political difficulties facing the siting of waste-to-energy conversion plants S (such as incinerators of urban domestic waste), recommending areas £ of low environmental awareness and low capacity for mobilizing social 15 resources in opposition. There were surprises when opposition arose in 'in unexpected areas, such as the Concerned Citizens of South Central Los 15 Angeles in 1985. Also in the 1980s, other environmental conflicts gave m rise to groups such as People for Community Recovery in South Chicago (Altgeld Gardens), led by Hazel Johnson, and the West Harlem Environmental Action (WHEACT) in New York, led by Vernice Miller. In 1989, the South-West Network for Economic and Environmental Justice (SNEEJ), led by Richard Moore, was founded, with its main seat in Albuquerque, New Mexico, out of grievances felt by Mexican and Native American populations. Richard Moore was the first signatory of a famous letter sent to the 'big ten' environmental organizations in the USA in January 1990 by the leaders of organizations representing African-Americans and Hispanic Americans. The letter warned that the 'white' organizations would not be able to build a strong environmental movement unless they addressed the issue of toxic waste dumps and incinerators [...]

The insistence on 'environmental racism' is sometimes surprising to analysts from outside the USA. In fact, some foreign academics refuse to acknowledge the racial angle, and have boldly stated: 'If one were asked to date the beginning of the environmental justice movement in the United States, then 2 August 1978 might be the place to start. This was the day when the CBS and ABC news networks first carried news of the effect of toxic waste on the health of the people of a place called Love Canal' (Dobson, 1998: 18). However, the Love Canal people, led by Lois Gibbs, were not people of colour, they were white, as such categories are understood in the USA, and therefore were subject only to metaphorical, not real 'environmental racism'. [...] Bullard, who is both an academic and an activist, realizes the potential of the environmental justice movement beyond 'minority' populations, asserting in 1994:

Grassroots groups, after decades of struggle, have grown to become the core of the multi-issue, multi-racial, and multi-regional environmental justice movement. Diverse community-based groups have begun to organize and link their struggles to issues of civil and human rights, land rights and sovereignty, cultural survival, racial and social justice, and sustainable development ... Whether in urban ghettos and barrios, rural 'poverty pockets', Native American reservations, or communities in the Third World, grassroots groups are demanding an end to unjust and non-sustainable environmental and development policies.1

[...] As mining, logging, oil drilling and waste-disposal projects push into further corners of the planet, people all over the world are seeing their basic rights compromised, losing their livelihoods, cultures and even their lives. Environmental devastation globally and what we call 'environmental racism' in the United States, are violations of human rights and they occur for similar reasons.2

Louisiana is one of the best places for 'environmental racism'. It contains 'Cancer Alley' between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. There are communities in Louisiana such as Sunrise, Reveilletown and Morrison-ville, which were on the fence-lines of Placid Refinery, Georgia Gulf and Dow Chemical, respectively, and which 'were literally wiped off the map, and the people suffered the permanent loss of their homes after many years of struggles'.3 [...] Granting the increasing internationalization of the US environmental justice movement, granting its awareness that environmental injustices are not only directed against African-Americans, why is Lois Gibbs not 'officially' credited within the environmental justice movement as being its founder in the 1970s in Love Canal, why is the official birth located in North Carolina in 1982? The answer is race, an important principle of the American social constitution.4 In America there is racism, and there is also anti-racism. Race is of practical importance in order to explain not only the controversial geography of toxic dumps or incarceration rates but also residential and school patterns. Moreover, to establish a link between the non-violent Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and the increasing environmental awareness of the 1970s and 1980s proved attractive for instrumental reasons. The legislation against racism (such as Title VI of the Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964) forbids discrimination based on race. However, in order to establish the existence of racism, it is not sufficient to prove that environmental impact is different[;] it must also be shown that there is an explicit intention to cause harm to a minority group. [This has] shifted the debate on environmentalism away from the emphasis on 'wilderness' (preservation) or the emphasis on 'eco-efficiency' (conservation) towards emphasis on ° social justice (Gottlieb, 1993). Though structured around a core of people n of colour activists, it encompasses also conflicts on environmental risks 2 affecting poor people of whatever colour. Internationally, it is slowly i linking up with Third World environmentalism (Hofrichter, 1993). I have, z then, only one minor quarrel with the 'official' environmental justice l movement in the USA, and this is its emphasis on 'minority' groups. r

The movement worked with the Clinton-Gore administration in order to ■¡H diminish environmental threats to minority groups in the USA; becom--g ing somewhat enmeshed in governmental commissions, it has not led

S a worldwide movement for environmental justice. [...]

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