"Environmental justice" is a pleasant euphemism for racism. Just as we couched the fight for racial equality during the 1960s comfortably under the guise of civil rights, today we continue to deny our culpability in a bad situation with semantics.
In 1988 when a Harlem neighborhood was targeted for the ill-advised location of a sewage treatment plant, racism was likely the first word that came to mind but few would utter it.
“Not withstanding the science the plant was put uptown because land was cheaper and it was felt that it was a community that would not resist,” said Peggy Shepard, the executive director of West Harlem Environmental Action, Inc. “So is that racism? I would say that is an intentional targeting of getting something you don’t want in an affluent community and putting it somewhere else where you think that people won’t be alert to it.”
Racism is an ugly word. It conjures up notions of violence and abuse that no one would ever ascribe to themselves or to others. But repeatedly we conveniently disregard the health and safety of an entire population in the name of the public good and the profit of a few. We consider the impact of our actions on racial minorities an unfortunate coincidence in our march toward progress. Surely it couldn’t be racism. Or is it?
Perhaps now in the fight for environmental justice we can finally get down to the serious business of setting things right and aspire to something more profound. With the game-changing impact of universal crises such as climate change, overpopulation, a growing scarcity of natural resources, and the epidemic of childhood obesity, we well-meaning hypocrites may at last be prompted to act in keeping with our convictions.
As an African-American I must include myself among those who have allowed racial disparity in the conservation movement to continue for so long. Twenty years after the fact, the letter written by the SouthWest Outreach Project came to me as a complete surprise. As reported by High Country News in two very informative articles ("The Shot Heard Round the West" and "The Group of 10 Respond"), the so-called SWOP letter was delivered like an indictment to leaders of the conservation movement in 1990. It would seem that groups like the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society neglected to include the interests of minorities in creating policies and practices intended to preserve the natural world. That letter is said to have sparked the rise of the EJ movement but what I find surprising today is how little has been accomplished in two decades.
Despite efforts of the EJ movement and with no institutional barriers that restrict our access, participation rates among people of color in outdoor recreation and environmental conservation initiatives remain conspicuously low. If true racial diversity has indeed been achieved, why then do we not see numbers of minority activists that are consistent with our percentage of the population?
Racial disparity likely persists because social custom has for decades allowed us to segregate ourselves. Minorities, particularly African-Americans, had their movements confined by the Jim Crow laws of the 1960s. And racially motivated violence was a reality of the not so distant past. In many cases acts criminal abuse were perpetrated in remote settings. The perception of a hostile natural environment endures today and most minorities tend to stay home. An artifact of racism to be sure, but this perception defines in part our current reality nonetheless.
With this kind of persistent racial tension it’s no wonder so little progress has been achieved since the SWOP letter of 1990. By dividing our interests between the needs of the urban poor and an endangered wilderness, inclinations to join forces and work cooperative are severely limited. And there are apparently those who believe that to address the interests of environmental justice is to detract directly from initiatives to protect the environment at large.
“The mainstream ‘enviros’ opposed to doing EJ work don't get it,” says Marcelo Bonta, founder and executive directory of the Center for Diversity & The Environment, based in Portland, Oregon. “They feel that if they do work that is relevant to people of color that it is going to take away time, energy, and money from their other environmental work, like land protection, when in fact it will do the opposite.
Bonta says mainstream environmental organizations that connect with and engage people of color have shown more success at achieving their mission. They tend to get more people involved in their work, “more funding, more members, and more people who care,” he says. “These are the organizations who will be around in 40 years. Those who don't will continue to struggle with funding and achieving their mission. They are operating with a scarcity mentality rather than an abundance mentality.”
The true success of the environmental justice movement might best be measured by counting conservation efforts that include the interests of the population as a whole. And in recent years I’ve felt the tide of conversation has actually turned. Ironically, emerging enemies common to all of humanity are racially indifferent.
The global threat of climate change has put us all at risk. As we identify our urban centers as the source of most greenhouse gas emissions, we now begin to focus our attention upon the people of color who live there. A warming planet is a threat to the forests, lakes, streams, ice caps and deserts the conservation movement has worked tirelessly to preserve. Now threatened by a growing urban population, many of whom are African-American and Hispanic, conservationists are now inclined to reach out to city dwellers with messages of green jobs for a green economy, home weatherization to save energy and the creation of sustainable communities with more green space and sidewalks. We’re working now to encourage incidental exercise as we walk to work and school. We’re talking about fitness programs for urban young people in particular. Their lack of physical activity is resulting in excessive weight gain and obesity related preventable ailments like heart disease, high blood pressure, sleep apnea, asthma and type 2 diabetes.
Indeed, environmental justice includes issues related to the health care debate as well.
It’s with these outreach initiatives made not only in the name of environmental justice, but for the benefit of all that we’ll stand the best chance of correcting a number of social problems. At same time we can also work toward protecting the natural world. A model of inclusion that welcomes the participation of everyone, while addressing the specific needs of the most vulnerable members of our society, will perhaps shift the discussion from an aspiration not of justice, but environmental harmony.
James Edward Mills is a freelance journalist and an independent media producer based in Madison, Wisconsin. Originally from Los Angeles with a degree in Anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley, James now makes frequent trips to the West to produce stories for print, radio and the Internet on racial diversity in the conservation movement as well as initiatives to expose more people of color to wild and scenic places. See his Web site at joytripproject.org.