For Educators: Environmental Justice Movement

Introductory Essay: Environmental Justice

It is well documented that people who live, work, and play in America's most polluted environments are poor and people of color. This is no accident. These communities are often targeted as locations for the placement of facilities that negatively impact the environment. In these communities, you may find a waste dump, landfill, or a dirty industrial plant emitting pollutants into the air, or a highway or railway creating noise pollution, or the use of a pesticide for farming that pollutes the soil and the vegetables and fruits we eat, or radioactive waste storage areas, and meat and poultry processors. The environmental changes brought on by facilities such as these, have helped prompt the formation of a grassroots movement to fight environmental injustices and the creation of the term "environmental racism."

The Environmental Justice Movement emerged in the 1980s in reaction to these discriminatory environmental practices. The origins of the Environmental Justice Movement, however, may be traced to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s as well as the Environmental Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Citing the environmental threats from hazardous wastes and other toxic chemicals in their communities, low-income communities of color emerged as strong activists against what they viewed as environmental attacks on their civil rights.

In 1982, Dr. Benjamin Chavis, then director of the United Church of Christ's Commission for Racial Justice (CRJ) coined the term "environmental justice" in response to an incident in Warren County, North Carolina. At the urging of community leaders, Chavis and others including the Southern Christian Leadership Conferenc's (SCLC) Joseph Lowery and Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) member Walter Fauntroy participated in a month-long protest against the siting of a chemical landfill in Warren County. The protest, though unsuccessful, garnered the attention of national civil rights leaders and environmentalists and is commonly recognized as the birthplace of the Environmental Justice Movement.

The Warren County incident was also the motivation for a CRJ study examining the correlation between race and toxic waste. In 1987 CRJ published a report about this study, Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States: A National Report on the Racial and Social Economic Characteristics of Communities of Hazardous Waste Sites, citing the overrepresentation of toxic waste facilities in minority communities, especially African American and Hispanic communities.

Other communities of color had organized to oppose environmental threats before Warren County. In the early 1960s, Latino farm workers organized by Cesar Chavez fought for workplace rights, including protection from harmful pesticides in the farm fields of California's San Joaquin valley. In 1967, African-American students took to the streets of Houston to oppose a city garbage dump in their community that had claimed the lives of two children. In 1968, residents of West Harlem, in New York City, fought unsuccessfully against the siting of a sewage treatment plant in their community. But the Warren County protests marked the first instance of an environmental protest by people of color that garnered widespread national attention.

In 1990, the Congressional Black Caucus and a bipartisan coalition of academic, social scientists and political activists met with Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials to discuss the heightened environmental risks for minority and low-income populations. The CBC and others suggested that the EPA's inspections did not address the needs of low-income communities of color. In response, the EPA created the Environmental Equity Workgroup. In 1992, the workgroup addressed these concerns in a report, Reducing Risk for All Communities, which highlighted the exposure of racial minorities to high levels of pollution. The group made several recommendations, among them was the idea that an office was needed to address environmental inequities. As a result, the Office of Environmental Equity was created; the name was changed to the Office of Environmental Justice (OEJ) in 1994.

By 1990, leaders of the growing Environmental Justice Movement began to look for allies among traditional, primarily white environmental organizations. These were groups that had long fought to protect wilderness, endangered species, clean air and clean water. They were well-funded and powerful enough to influence national policy on environmental issues, but they had had little or no involvement in the environmental struggles of people of color. That year, several environmental justice leaders co-signed a widely publicized letter to several environmental groups like the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, and the Wilderness Society accusing them of racial bias in policy development, hiring and the make up of their boards, and challenging them to address toxic contamination in the communities and workplaces of people of color and the poor. As a result, some mainstream environmental organizations developed their first environmental justice initiatives, added people of color to their staffs and resolved to take environmental justice into account when making policy decisions.

Two years later, the CBC established the Environmental Justice Braintrust under the leadership of Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-SC). The CBC has indentified environmental justice as one of the top three issues on every agenda since the braintrust was established. The National Environmental Policy Commission, established in 2000, is an outgrowth of recommendations from a Congressional Black Caucus' Environmental Justice Braintrust. The Commission was created by the CBC to address environmental justice, public health, and economic development. The Congressional Black Caucus' Environmental Justice Braintrust continues to be a driving force in environmental justice activism.

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