A Winning Hand? the Uncertain Future of Environmental Justice

By Foreman, Christopher H., Jr. | Brookings Review, Spring 1996 | Go to article overview

A Winning Hand? the Uncertain Future of Environmental Justice


Foreman, Christopher H., Jr., Brookings Review


During its halcyon legislative days in the 1970s, the public face of environmentalism was overwhelmingly white and middle class. Minority politicians provided reliable votes for environmental statutes but were often acutely suspicious of mainstream invironmentalism, believing the urban poor a more endangered species than spotted owls. Whitney Young, executive director of the National Urban League, bluntly advised postpolling the war on pollution until "after the war on poverty is won."

Today, however, a national environmental justice movement dominated by people of color is aggressively demanding attention to pollution - and to race, poverty, and apparent links between them. Sustained by a combination of rrsearch findings and widespread outrage among communities in toxic terror, the movement claims that a lack of power among poor and minority communities has saddled them with disproportionate burdens both in pollution and in environmental policy implementation.

In fits and starts, state governments are beginning to grapple with the issue. So is the Clinton administration, which in February 1994 issued executive order 12898 charging each cabinet department to "make achieving environmental justice part of its mission," with the Environmental Protection Agency to lead the way. Having inherited all office of environmental equity from the Bush administration, EPA administrator Carol Browner renamed it the office of environmental justice, appointed a national environmental justice advisory council stocked heavily with advocates, and promoted strategic planning. Under assistant administrator Elliott P. Laws, EPA's office of solid waste and emergency response (OSWER) has made environmental justice a top priority.

All this - the energizing of the movement, the community activism, the state and federal response - sounds promising and is certainly well-intended. But the environmentally just society is not just around the corner. Many hurdles lie between the status quo and a thoughtfully reformed regime of environmental policy, one that confers significant additional benefits on traditionally disadvantaged groups.

The Movement Problem

Ironically, one problem is the movement itself. An artfully nurtured "big tent" embracing black, Latino, Asian, and Native American grassroots organizations and their allies, the environmental justice movement began in earnest with a now legendary 1982 Warren County, North Carolina, protest against a proposed PCB landfill. Demonstrations failed to stop the landfill, but hundreds of protesters were arrested. A subsequent study of hazardous waste landfills in the southeast by the General Accounting Office found that blacks were a majority of the population in three of the four "offsite" (that is, not associated with an industrial facility) landfills in the region. As time went on, other communities, in tandem with scholar-activists like sociologist Robert Bullard, would coalesce into a movement challenging what they saw as an unmistakable and insidious tendency to make commnities of color society's dumping ground.

The problem the movement faces is crucial, and probably unavoidable. The movement has grown, and maintained internal harmony, through a blend of inclusiveness and ideological appeals that derails discussion of priorities and trade-offs. It tends therefore to avoid difficult but necessary decisions. For example, the notion of acceptable risk, basic to any realistic approach to health and safety, is suspect within the movement as an excuse for victimizing people of color. A "bottom-up" coalition for which all grievances are created equal is especially hard pressed to think in terms of the relative risks and costs of such environmental hazards as childhood lead and farmworker pesticide exposures, Superfund cleanups, incinerator sitings, or even nonenvironmental health hazards. The movement presumes that any person of color voicing any environmental-related anxiety or aspiration represents a genuine environmental justice problem. …

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