Environmental Justice for Black Americans: A Question of Fairness

By Arp, William,, III; Llorens, James | The Western Journal of Black Studies, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

Environmental Justice for Black Americans: A Question of Fairness


Arp, William,, III, Llorens, James, The Western Journal of Black Studies


Introduction

Studies of the environmental justice movement have sought to identify, analyze and categorize those factors that contributed to its emergence. Dr. Robert D. Bullard, one of the leading authorities on this subject, has suggested that the major factor is the inequitable siting of polluting industries in minority communities (1990; 1993). Conversely, Baugh (1991), posited that the exclusion of Black environmental interests by mainstream environmental organizations created a chasm between environmentally concerned Blacks and Whites. As a result, Blacks developed and activated community-based organizations for their own protection. Other scholars have reported that the cumulative effects of toxins emitted, dumped, burned or buried had created a "crisis of health" (see Arp and Boeckelman, 1994; Bullard and Wright, 1990) that united Blacks within communities throughout the nation.

Some contemporary findings described Black religion as a triggering mechanism for various forms of community activism (Harris, 1994; West, 1988; Cone, 1986). In a recent study, religion was revealed as a major factor in explaining Blacks' environmental activism. Church attendance and participation were found to be important predictors of communal activity (environmentalism). In addition, the study revealed that income levels, community participation, and levels of anger were all statistically significant predictors of Black Americans' movement for environmental justice (Arp and Boeckelman, 1997).

Blacks once thought to be disinterested in the "general" degradation of the environment, have been found by studies of racial differences in environmental concern and activism to show equal or greater concern for their "own" environment than Whites (Baugh, 1991; Bullard, 1993; Mohai, 1990). Using data from a series of General Social Surveys (GSS) conducted between 1973 and 1990, by the National Opinion Research Center, Jones and Carter (1994), found that,

"Black Americans display strong environmental concern, at least equal to and sometimes exceeding that shown by White Americans. Black Americans also display greater concern than White Americans for other pressing social problems."

However, studies continue to show that although Blacks are just as concerned as Whites, they are less likely to be environmentally active. In an article entitled "Black Environmentalism in the Local Community Context," Arp and Kenny (1996), depart from the standardized practice of comparing the general environmental concerns of Blacks and Whites by examining specific concerns within a community threatened by the siting of a hazardous waste facility. They found that Black participation was equal to or greater than Whites when the health or well-being of their community was specifically targeted and threatened by environmental degradation.

Whatever the causal factor, this emerging movement of Black environmentalism for justice is opposing the further intrusion of industry into Black neighborhoods. Industries are under surveillance and under-fire from Black communities who believe they are fighting the same injustice faced during the Civil Rights Movement (Bullard, 1993). This study collects and articulates the motivational perceptions of Black Americans as they struggle for environmental justice.

Environmental Justice Context

It is well-known that African Americans and other minority groups are disproportionately exposed to industrial pollution (Bullard, 1990; Church of Christ Commission, 1987; Grossman, 1991). The inequitable governmental siting of polluting industries (chemical, waste burning incinerators, and landfills) in or near Black-American communities has increased racial tensions and given rise to charges of environmental racism (Wright, 1992). Other reports suggest that pollutants released into the environment by industry have caused an increase of cancer, rashes, poisoning, asthma, and birth deformities found in many of these vulnerable Black communities (Bullard and Wright, 1990; Carroll, 1991).

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