Environmental Racism: 1987 to 2007

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Tompkins Weekly 1-26-15

By Richard Franke

In our introductory column on environmental racism and sustainability published here on 8 December, 2014, we noted that a key moment in the movement for environmental justice came in 1987 with the publication of the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice’s Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States. This report put the issue of environmental racism before the public in a way it had never been before. There was another significant environmental report that year, the UN World Commission on Environment and Development, published by Oxford University Press under the title Our Common Future. This is more informally known as The Brundtland Report, after its chairperson, Gro Harlem Brundtland of Norway. Because of this report the word “sustainability” entered mainstream scientific and academic circles.

After 1987 both environmental racism and sustainability grew rapidly as topics of conferences, reports, scientific journal articles and books. In the US the environmental justice movement discovered that Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act contained language forbidding discrimination in projects using federal funds that they could use for lawsuits, but legal challenges were not the only devices used to oppose environmental threats. Thousands of mostly un-famous activists set up local meetings, wrote letters and press releases, got petitions signed, made phone calls, led marches and sit ins – working in nonviolent ways to pressure local governments and/or companies to clean up dangerous toxic waste facilities and sites and/or to stop implementing harmful practices. In 1992 there were about 300 people-of-color environmental justice organizations active around the country. By 2011 the number had risen to more than 3,000.

In 2007 the United Church of Christ Justice and Witness Ministries updated their 1987 exposé by issuing a 160 page document, Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty: 1987–2007. The new report listed several victories by local environmental justice activists and organizations. In 1988 “Mothers of East L. A.” defeated construction of a huge toxic waste incinerator in their community. In Dikon, Arizona Navajo activists achieved a similar victory that same year. In 1996 local grassroots organizers in Pensacola Florida convinced the EPA to relocate an entire community of 358 African-American and low-income households living next to a toxic wood treatment plant. In 2006 activists welcomed the opening of the 32-acre Los Angeles State Historic Park where a previous plan had been to construct warehouses. Also in 2006, after 13 years of litigation, the black residents of Warren County, North Carolina, whose struggle had brought the concepts of environmental racism and environmental justice into mainstream circles – finally won their case for compensation and assistance in relocating from their poisoned neighborhood. The poisoning came from an adjacent 142 acres landfill where PCBs that had been illegally dumped along North Carolina roads were being deposited.

Most of the news, however, was not so positive. The overall “findings” section of the report concluded that 9.2 million Americans “are estimated to live within 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) of the nation’s 413 commercial hazardous waste facilities.” Of those, 5.1 million (56%) were people of color whereas in areas not so close to the facilities, people of color were only 30%. The data and analysis in the report indicate that the over-representation of people of color in the more polluted zones was either equal to or possibly even greater than 20 years earlier when the 1987 report had been issued. And – several of the findings of over-representation including those in urban areas – were statistically significant. Furthermore, a detailed statistical study using 2000 census data and the (then) newer GIS location software made it possible to statistically validate a key finding of the 1987 report: “race continues to be a significant and robust predictor of commercial hazardous waste facility locations [even – RWF] when socioeconomic and other non-racial factors are taken into account.” An established statistical technique called “logistic regression” further showed that all the race indicators were statistically significant.
The 2007 20 years update report includes a chapter with a scathing and detailed attack on the lax and incompetent government response to Hurricane Katrina’s devastation in southern Louisiana in 2005. As C. J. Correa Bernier of the UCC Environmental Justice Office reminded readers in the preface, “…the environmental justice movement is a dynamic one, a continuous struggle…” At the national level in the U.S. that struggle came of age during the 1990s leading to several important political developments. Watch for another installment in this story in a future SoS report.

Richard W. Franke writes about the history of sustainability. He is professor emeritus of anthropology at Montclair State University, a resident of Ecovillage at Ithaca and a board member of Sustainable Tompkins.


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