Hope And Skepticism As Biden Promises To Address Environmental RacismBreaking News
tags: African American history, EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, Environmental Justice, Environmental racism
Across the country, disproportionate exposure to pollution threatens the health of people of color, from Gulf Coast towns in the shadow of petrochemical plants to Indigenous communities in the West that are surrounded by oil and gas operations. Generations of systemic racism routinely put factories, refineries, landfills and factory farms in Black, brown and poor communities, exposing their residents to far greater health risks from pollution than those in whiter, more affluent places.
The federal government has known of environmental injustice for decades. Presidents have promised to address it. But a legacy of weak laws and spotty enforcement has left Black, brown and poor communities mired in pollution and health hazards.
A long history
The federal government's role in responding to environmental racism makes sense when you consider that it created the problems in the first place.
"I think the concept of environmental justice goes way back way before the founding of the Republic, when you had the invasion of this hemisphere by the Europeans," says Quentin Pair, who teaches at Howard University in Washington, D.C., who served for 35 years as a lead trial attorney on environmental cases at the Department of Justice and led much of its work on environmental justice. "It always seems to be the people who suffer these indignities are people of color and the poor."
Pair draws a line from the early exploitation of Indigenous and Black people in North America to the modern movement for environmental justice, which began to gather strength in the mid-20th century with the broader civil rights movement in the U.S.
One early example were the United Farm Workers demonstrations of the 1960s, which, among other things, connected worker illness to pesticides. In 1971, Black residents of Shaw, Miss., filed a civil rights lawsuit over the lack of adequate sewer service in their neighborhoods — a problem that still plagues many communities. In the 1970s, a group of Native Hawai'ians launched protests against the U.S. military in an effort to reclaim and restore an island used for target practice, a fight that lasted decades, and in the late 1970s, residents of a majority-Black neighborhood in Houston fought to block construction of a landfill on civil rights grounds.
Meanwhile, changes within the federal government suggested that environmental racism might finally be addressed. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination in federal spending, and the Environmental Protection Agency was established in 1970. By the early 1980s, there was a growing environmental justice movement across the country. In 1982, large-scale protests against a toxic dump planned for a majority-Black neighborhood in Warren County, N.C. grabbed national headlines after dozens of protesters were arrested. The dump was built despite the protests.
In the wake of the North Carolina protests, national civil rights groups began a decadelong effort to further document the effects of pollution on communities of color and push the federal government to act. A flurry of studies and testimonies described how race was often the strongest predictor of proximity to toxic sites and the inequitable way that environmental regulations are both created and enforced.
"Race is a major factor related to the presence of hazardous wastes in residential communities across the United States," wrote the authors of a landmark 1987 report by the United Church of Christ, which found that Black and Latinx Americans were significantly more likely to live near sources of toxic pollution. "We are releasing this report in the interests of the millions of people who live in potentially health-threatening situations."