Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr.
Millions of African Americans, Latinos, Asians, Pacific Islanders, and Native Americans are trapped in polluted environments because of their race and color. Inhabitants of these communities are exposed to greater health and environmental risks than is the general population. Clearly, all Americans do not have the same opportunities to breathe clean air, drink clean water, enjoy clean parks and playgrounds, or work in a clean, safe environment.
People of color bear the brunt of the nation's pollution problem. This was the case, for example, in Warren County, North Carolina, in 1982. It is still true today. Warren County is important because activities there set off the national environmental justice movement. The rural, poor, and mostly African-American county was selected for a PCB landfill not because it was an environmentally sound choice, but because it seemed powerless to resist. During the subsequent protests and demonstrations against the landfill, the term "environmental racism" was coined. For the more than 500 protesters who were arrested, the behavior of county authorities was seen as an extension of the institutional racism many of them had encountered in the past -- including discrimination in housing, employment, education, municipal services, and law enforcement.
Environmental racism is racial discrimination in environmental policyrnaking. It is racial discrimination in the enforcement of regulations and laws. It is racial discrimination in the deliberate targeting of communities of color for toxic waste disposal and the siting of polluting industries. It is racial discrimination in the official sanctioning of the life-threatening presence of poisons and pollutants in communities of color. And, it is racial discrimination in the history of excluding people of color from the mainstream environmental groups, decisionmaking boards, commissions, and regulatory bodies.
The United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice was among the first national civil rights organizations to raise the question of environmental racism. The Commission's 1987 groundbreaking