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
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
"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. …