WARREN COUNTY, N.C. — Ben Chavis was driving on a lonely road through rolling tobacco fields when he looked in his rearview mirror and saw the state trooper.
Chavis knew he was a marked man. Protests had erupted over North Carolina’s decision to dump 40,000 cubic yards of soil contaminated with cancer-causing chemicals in a poor Black farming community in Warren County, and Chavis was a leader of the revolt. The trooper pulled him over.
“What did I do, officer?” Chavis asked that day in 1982. The answer shocked him.
“He told me that I was driving too slow.”
Chavis was arrested and thrown in jail. When the cell door slammed shut, he gripped the metal bars and declared: “This is racism. This is environmental racism.”
The term stuck, and now — nearly 40 years after Chavis spoke the words that have come to define decisions by governments and corporations to place toxic pollution in communities of color — the issue has risen from the fringes of the American conservation movement to the heart of President Biden’s environmental agenda.
Systemic racism has long influenced where major sources of pollution are located within communities. Beginning in the early 20th century, White government planners in many municipalities drew redlining maps that identified Black and Latino neighborhoods as undesirable and unworthy of housing loans. Heavy industry was permitted to cluster in those places, adding a toxic dimension that persists today.
Given little support by White philanthropists, environmental justice groups run by Black, Latino, Native American and Alaskan Native advocates historically have been as impoverished as the communities they represent. While White environmental groups tended to focus on wilderness and wildlife, activists fighting everything from toxic dumps in Alabama to massive oil and gas refineries in California have largely worked in the shadows.
Today, Black people are nearly four times more likely to die from exposure to pollution than White people. According to “Fumes Across the Fence-Line,” a recent study by the Clean Air Task Force, African Americans are exposed to 38 percent more polluted air than White Americans, and they are 75 percent more likely to live in communities that border a plant or factory.