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Greens Get Real

Despite the fact that racial minorities are disproportionately victimized by pollution, few traditionally have been involved in the organized struggle against environmental degradation. Black activists explain that they have ignored the ecology movement for so long because it excluded them. Recently, however, the interests of environmentalists and civil rights advocates have converged in struggles that fall under the rubric "environmental justice."
 
 
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During the first Earth Day celebrations in 1970, white students at San Jose City College wanted to dramatize the automobile's harmful effects on the environment. So they staged a spectacle that epitomized the oblivious and pampered angst of the time: They bought a new Cadillac and buried it. The Black Student Union demonstrated in protest, arguing that the money wasted on the car could have been better spent on a practical problem in San Jose's inner city.Such discordant perceptions have always complicated the relationship between the environmental and civil rights movements. Despite the fact that racial minorities are disproportionately victimized by pollution, few traditionally have been involved in the organized struggle against environmental degradation. Reasons vary. Some black activists explain that they have ignored the ecology movement for so long because it excluded them. At the turn of the century, blacks and other minorities were barred from the early wilderness preservation and conservation movements, precursors of modern-day environmentalism. Even the Sierra Club, the most progressive of the early environmental groups, excluded blacks, Jews and other minorities well into the '60s. According to some critics, vestiges of the old attitudes remain. In 1990, a coalition of civil rights groups circulated a letter accusing eight major environmental groups,the Wilderness Society, the Sierra Club, the National Audubon Society, the Environmental Defense Fund, Friends of the Earth, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the National Parks and Conservation Association and the Izaak Walton League, of racist hiring practices. These groups conceded that they had poor records of hiring and promoting minorities, but they denied racist motives. They attributed their racial uniformity instead to the scarcity of minorities in the pool of environmental specialists. Seven years later, the situation has changed somewhat for the better. "Some of these groups have really made a concerted effort to hire more minority staff and appoint more black and other minority board members," says Robert Bullard, director of Clark Atlanta University's Environmental Justice Resource Center and author of several books on the issue. But there's still a long way to go. The problem runs deeper than hiring practices: There is a cultural gulf that white environmentalists have only recently begun to recognize. For years, the elite pedigree and elitist culture of mainstream environmental organizations blinded them to the ecological threats facing minorities. For their part, minority activists found such issues as saving the endangered spotted owl or the snail darter too abstract and insignificant compared to more urgent concerns of pollution and other quality-of-life issues. Lately, however, the interests of environmentalists and civil rights advocates have converged in struggles that fall under the rubric "environmental justice." The environmental justice movement argues that social, political, economic and environmental issues are inextricably linked. The movement emerged as it dawned on African-American, Native-American and Latino leaders that minority communities suffer the most from pollution and benefit the least from cleanup programs."Slowly we are being picked off by industries that don't give a damn about polluting our neighborhood, contaminating our water, fouling our air, clogging our streets and lowering our property values," says Charles Streadit, an African-American resident of Houston and president of the Northeast Community Action Group. Streadit may sound paranoid, but he speaks from bitter experience. In 1979, in an action that sparked what became the environmental justice movement, his group sued the giant waste hauler Browning- Ferris Industries for maliciously targeting their northeast Houston neighborhood for placement of a solid-waste landfill. Streadit's group lost the case, but while researching the issue they discovered that between the early '20s and the late '70s, the city placed all five of its landfills and six of its eight incinerators in predominantly black neighborhoods.The Houston battle prompted similar ones throughout the nation. In 1982, North Carolina officials located a PCB (polychlorinated- biphenyl) landfill in predominantly black Warren County. Members of a broad range of civil rights groups, including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Congressional Black Caucus, gathered to protest the landfillUs construction. Several hundred demonstrators were arrested. While the Warren County battle, too, was lost, national black leadership became involved with environmental issues for the first time. One of the civil rights groups that joined the Warren County protest was the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice, which later sponsored the path-breaking study "Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States." Analyzing census data, the 1987 study found that race was the most significant of several variables in determining the location of commercial hazardous-waste sites in residential areas. It also revealed that three out of five African-Americans and Latinos live in communities with one or more hazardous-waste sites. The study also linked African-Americans' high rates of cancer, respiratory disorders, renal malfunctions, heart disease and mental impairment to toxic pollutants disproportionately found in their communities. The commission's executive director, the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., coined the term "environmental racism" to describe the report's conclusions.The controversial findings exploded like a bombshell within the civil rights community and instantly energized many green activists, who used this potent issue to revitalize and expand the environmental movement. In October 1991, the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit took place in Washington, D.C., bringing together 650 grass-roots leaders representing more than 300 community groups from across the country. "After that conference, the movement seemed to take off," says Hazel Johnson, founder and president of the People for Community Recovery, a Chicago-based program and one of the few environmental groups based in public housing. "Organizations from different parts of the country began coordinating their activities, and things were really going strong."Most environmental justice activists conceive of their work as only distantly related to the mainstream environmental movement. The founding statement of the Southwest Organizing Project in Albuquerque, one of the largest grass-roots groups fighting environmental degradation and a prominent contributor to the 1991 summit, is typical of the genre: SWOP does not consider itself an environmental organization but rather "a community-based organization which addresses toxic issues as part of a broader agenda of action to realize social, racial and economic justice." The movement's growing organizing prowess has captured the attention of polluting industries. Many industry representatives believe it has the potential to become a more troublesome force than mainstream environmental groups. "It's a grass-roots movement, and the people leading it are much more personally involved in the issues," says John Kyte, director of environmental affairs at the National Association of Manufacturers. "It's also different [from traditional environmental groups] in terms of its aims. We have people in this movement talking about tangible survival issues." Industry was quick to respond to this threat. At a two-day conference in September 1994, the National Association of Manufacturers and the Chemical Manufacturers Association resolved to aggressively fund research attacking the scientific underpinnings of the environmental justice movement. Soon after the conference, a number of reports began appearing that refuted the findings of the United Church of Christ study. Chief among them was a widely quoted study by scientists at the University of Massachusetts- Amherst funded by Waste Management, one of the nation's most egregious polluters.Such negative PR has hardly broken the movement's stride. Researchers continue to uncover links between environmental degradation and social pathologies in the black community. A 1996 study at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, for example, suggested that exposure to lead in the environment may contribute significantly to criminal behavior, a finding that might help explain the high rates of crime in America's inner cities. With the mainstream green groups under the thumb of Vice President Al Gore, their major political patron, environmental justice issues seem like the only game in town for serious activists. In fact, politicians close to the movement seem to be showing more backbone on environmental issues than anybody else. The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) has the best environmental voting record of any bloc in Congress, according to the League of Conservation Voters. The CBC had an average score of 76 percent during the 104th Congress, compared to an average Democratic score of 70 percent and an average Republican score of 24 percent.That's not to say, however, that they get any credit for it. "Historically, I think, environmental organizations have defined the environment basically as a white issue," says Bunyan Bryant, a professor of natural resources at the University of Michigan and a League of Conservation Voters board member. "Here are congressional representatives who time and time again have voted in the right direction, yet they have not received any recognition for their work."That's starting to change. Black Caucus members are urging mainstream groups to take on issues of environmental justice. This convergence of forces helped convince President Bill Clinton in 1994 to sign an executive order requiring federal agencies to "identify and address disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies and activities on minority populations and low-income populations." There have been many other movement victories: The predominantly Latino residents of Kettleman City, Calif., won a court judgment blocking plans for an incinerator in their town. Black and white residents united to quash plans for a uranium-enrichment plant in Homer, La. In Chicago, Hazel Johnson's People for Community Recovery has joined the Chicago Legal Clinic to help residents drive polluters out of several city neighborhoods. Civil rights groups are now seeking environmentalists' support to expand public transit subsidies and to rid inner-city neighborhoods of cigarette and liquor billboards.Once beyond the pale for environmentalists, these issues may help restore relevance to green politics. "If the environmental movement is going to bring about change, it can't go it alone," said Bryant, the University of Michigan professor, in an interview last year. "It's going to have to form some coalitions. Right now, the most viable movement in this country is the environmental justice movement."