From Equal Access to Environmental Justice ; the NAACP's Plan to Sue the Lead-Paint Industry Is One Example of Civil Rights Shift

Article excerpt

The civil rights movement is a long way from the days of lunch- counter sit-ins and bus boycotts in the 1950s and 60s. No longer is the country torn apart over allowing African-Americans to drink from "white" water fountains and swim in community pools.

Today's fights for equality are more subtle - like where to site incinerators, racial disparities in prisons, or who is affected by toxic paint in their homes.

This week, at its national conference in New Orleans, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People announced plans to sue the lead-paint industry. Calling exposure to lead-based paint a "civil rights issue," NAACP President Kweisi Mfume stressed the importance of equal access to a safe environment.

While Mr. Mfume acknowledged that the toxic paint is not just a black problem but "is everywhere these houses [with lead-based paint] exist," the reality is that low-income and African-American children are far more likely than others to live in such a home.

The NAACP's involvement in the lead-paint fight is a striking example of how the civil rights agenda has evolved. After the struggle for desegregation, the movement turned its attention toward economic equality. Now, activists are joining the fight for environmental justice.

"The original civil rights movement was about the right to sit at a lunch counter and order a hamburger. In the '70s and '80s, it was about being able to afford to buy that hamburger. And now, it's about not dying from the stuff that's in the hamburger," says Christian Warren, a history professor at the University of Georgia in Athens who recently finished a book entitled "Brush with Death: A Social History of Lead Poisoning."

Lead-based paint was used widely in American homes until the federal government finally banned it in 1978. The industry adamantly denies that it had any knowledge of the risks associated with the metal, but activists claim paint manufacturers knew as early as the 1930s that it posed serious health risks.

Who is exposed?

Today, some 40 percent of homes still have some lead-based paint in them. But low-income children are eight times more likely to live in older homes and apartments where lead paint causes a problem, and African-American children are five times more likely than Anglo children to suffer from lead poisoning (caused by inhaling paint flakes and dust), according to the Center for Disease Control. …