Environmental Justice: A Growing Movement

By Doyle, Kevin | Diversity Employers, March-April 1994 | Go to article overview

Environmental Justice: A Growing Movement


Doyle, Kevin, Diversity Employers


"The issue of environmental racism in our communities has become an issue of life or death. We believe that there us a direct correlation between the disproportionate presence of toxic facilities and pollutants in communities where racial minorities and poor people reside, and the disproportionate increase in infant mortality, birth defects, cancer, and respiratory illness in these communities across the nation."

Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Executive Director/CEO NAACP

Why are communities of color and low-income communities more polluted than other communities? More importantly, what are we going to do about it? Finding solutions to these questions is a key purpose and mission of the environmental justice movement, a collection of community activists, civil rights leaders, churches, environmental groups, and others that has grown from virtually zero in the early 1980s to an influential movement today.

Before Dr. Ben Chavis coined the term "environmental racism" in 1983, the issue was virtually invisible. Today, the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has made environmental justice one of a handful of priority issues on the nation's environmental agenda, and there are environmental justice organizations in every state and in most major cities.

Understanding Environmental Injustice

According to Paul Mohai and Bunyan Bryant, scholars at the University of Michigan, national attention was first focused on environmental injustice in 1982 when 1960s' style protests broke out in Warren County, North Carolina in response to the location of a PCB landfill in that predominantly African-American community. The protesters, many of whom were arrested, asked why their community was selected for a toxic dump, against their wishes and without their consent.

The movement began taking on its current shape with the release of a study entitled "Toxic Wastes and Race." Published in 1987 by the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice, the study found that "race proved to be the most significant variable in association with the location of commercial hazardous waste facilities." The study also determined that three out of every five African Americans and Hispanic Americans lived in communities with uncontrolled toxic waste sites.

The report concluded that it was "virtually impossible" that the correlation of minority populations with the location of hazardous waste facilities had occurred by chance and implied that the racial and ethnic make-up of a community was playing a role in these site decisions.

In recent testimony before Congress, Dr. Chavis was more direct in describing what such studies imply, saying, "communities of color were being systematically discriminated against concerning environmental policy development and implementation, in regulatory enforcement as well as in the deliberate targeting of these communities for toxic generating and/or disposal facilities."

Since the release of "Toxic Wastes and Race," further work has been done to illuminate the environmental problems facing many communities of color. Bryant and Mohai, for instance, reviewed a number of studies and offered additional examples of environmental racism. A powerful study published by the National Law Journal used data from the Environmental Protection Agency to demonstrate that polluters in white communities were given stiffer penalties than those that affected communities of color. White communities also received better and quicker enforcement results, according to the Journal's research.

For Charles Lee, one of the authors of the 1987 study, certain facts speak for themselves. For example, "Nearly half (49%) of African-American children living in the inner city suffer from lead poisoning. For families earning $6,000 or less, the figure rises to 68%."

The impact of environmental injustice can best be seen in the nation's cities, according to Lee. Writing in the movement's best known newsletter (Race, Poverty and the Environment) last year, Lee described the predominantly African-American community of East St. …

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