Academic journal article Human Organization

Co-Opting Justice: Transformation of a Multiracial Environmental Coalition in Southern Alabama

Academic journal article Human Organization

Co-Opting Justice: Transformation of a Multiracial Environmental Coalition in Southern Alabama

Article excerpt

Between 1996 and 1998, plans to construct one of the nation's largest phenol plants near Mobile, Alabama, generated intense local opposition. Mobile Bay Watch, a movement originating among upper-middle-class whites, sought support from a nearby African American community to stop plant construction. In the process, it changed its focus from property values to the public health concerns of low-income residents. Yet, its strategies to encourage minority participation found mixed success. This paper examines how grassroots activists respond to regulatory policies that delegitimate their concerns and to new opportunities arising from federal environmental law, in the process transforming the strategies and claims of their movement.

Key words: environmental justice, NIMBY, social movements, grassroots, Alabama

Since the early 1980s, members of low-income and minority communities throughout the United States have decried local sitings of polluting industries, landfills, and incinerators as acts of environmental racism (Bryant 1995; Hamilton 1995). The cause of environmental justice, which opposes the disproportionate exposure of minority groups and the poor to pollution, is one of many currents of contemporary environmental action. Yet, it is usually seen as a significant departure from the rest of the environmental movement in its strategies and constituencies (Bullard 1996). Accordingly, social scientists broadly characterize environmental groups as either "mainstream" (white and middle class) or "justice-oriented" (minority and poor) (Ferris and Hahn-Baker 1995; Lichterman 1995; Guha 1997).

This article examines the growth of Mobile Bay Watch, a grassroots organization that has opposed the expansion of chemical plants in south Mobile County, Alabama.' The group originated in 1997 among a few white professionals concerned about the effect of a proposed phenol plant on property values and environmental aesthetics, but later sought support from a nearby African American neighborhood. As it did so, it shifted its grievances against the plant to the environmental justice claims of its newest members. This article will demonstrate that the analytical dichotomy between "mainstream" and "justice-oriented" environmentalism is temporal and context-specific, rather than a lasting attribute of social movements. Like other movements, Mobile Bay Watch had to adapt its discourse and action to the constraints and opportunities presented by regulatory agencies and state and federal law. In adopting the cause of environmental justice, the group neither substantively transformed its objectives, which remained the cancellation of new chemical plants, nor its membership, which remained predominately white. Rather, it seized upon environmental justice as a new resource after that cause was recognized in federal environmental policy. Indeed, within a political arena in which property values and aesthetics are excluded from regulatory consideration, Mobile Bay Watch was left little choice but to substantially alter its claims-making if it hoped to succeed in opposing the plant.

Environmentalism, Justice, and Social Movements

Observers of American environmentalism have noted significant strategic differences among predominately white organizations such as the National Audubon Society, Sierra Club, Greenpeace, and Earth First!, among others (Kempton et al. 1995; Goldblatt 1996; Ingelsbee 1996). For all their differences, however, such groups share a common "conservationist" discourse, opposing polluting industry because of its impact on wildlife and environmental aesthetics. In contrast, environmental justice movements regard the siting of polluting industries in minority communities as a form of racial injustice demanding redress (Capek 1993). Such mobilizations have drawn on the discourse of the civil rights movement, extending its demands for equal treatment to the arena of public health. In place of mainstream strategies of lobbying and letter writing, environmental justice activists invoke traditions of resistance embodied in sit-ins and other public protests of the civil rights era (Adeola 1994). …

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