Dr. King's Work Is Yet Undone

This week as the nation once again pays tribute to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., it is important to remember that his work is not yet finished. Nowhere is that clearer than in the nation's communities of color still disproportionately affected by industrial pollution.

To be sure, in the more than 40 years since Dr. King's death the civil rights movement has won some amazing victories. That movement has won bans on racial discrimination in public accommodations, housing and employment. People of color have won increased representation on police forces and local governments, in business and education, in the House of Representatives and the Senate. The most dramatic proof of the changes since Dr. King's assassination, the inauguration last year of America's first African American president, was almost unthinkable in 1968.

Still, the work Dr. King bequeathed to us is not finished. Among many other arenas in which racial inequality persists, communities of color still bear an unfair burden of exposure to dangerous pollutants and enjoy fewer of the benefits of our hard-won environmental protection laws. It is mainly people of color who work in agricultural fields drenched with dangerous pesticides. It is mainly people of color who breathe in radioactive mine tailings from uranium mines on native lands in the Southwest. And it is mainly people of color who live near oil refineries and chemical manufacturers, and who contend with the effluents of those facilities in their air and in their water.

In Richmond, California a diverse populace contends with pollution from its industrial neighbors. People of color make up four-fifths of the population of Richmond. The city's African American, Latino and Asian-Pacific Islander communities bear the brunt of local industry's toxic emissions. They suffer disproportionate rates of illnesses related to toxic exposure. The asthma rate in those parts of Richmond most impacted by the oil and chemical industries is twice the average for Contra Costa County. The longer a person lives in Richmond, the more likely he or she is to develop asthma. Cancer rates are also higher in Richmond, as are incidences of other chronic and debilitating illnesses such as recurring migraines. In Richmond and in similar communities across the country, people of color are afflicted with such environmental illnesses well out of proportion to the rate in the general population.

This is environmental racism. It may not come with police dogs and fire hoses, but Dr. King would recognize it nonetheless.

On Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday our thoughts generally turn to the stirring oration Dr. King delivered at the 1963 March On Washington, his "I Have A Dream" speech. And justly so: it is an historic and inspiring speech. But Dr. King did more than dream of a more just world. He devoted his life to changing that world. In the last year of his life Dr. King spoke out against the degrading effects of poverty in America, launching the Poor People's Campaign to demand jobs, income, and housing. He did not limit himself to working to lift people out of poverty, but began to speak of the need for fundamental changes in the political and economic systems that perpetuate poverty. Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis pressing for justice for striking sanitation workers, who due to their race were denied both equal pay and equal protection from workplace hazards. The fight for safe jobs continues, and is a key aspect of our campaign on the Chevron refinery in Richmond.

In short, though the term "environmental racism" was not coined until the 1980s, Martin Luther King Jr. would have recognized the concept. He would, we think, have decried a society that reserved the most dangerous jobs and neighborhoods for people of color. He would, we think, have objected to a system that counted children's health as less important than stock prices, that threatened communities with job loss and economic ruin when they speak up to defend themselves.

In his 1963 "Letter From Birmingham Jail," Dr. King wrote "Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities." The ominous clouds and fog in the essay were striking metaphor, but for many celebrating Dr. King's legacy this week they are all too real. Until communities of color no longer contend with clouds of toxic emissions from dangerous industrial plants, until we no longer suffer illness from chemical fog in our homes, workplaces and neighborhoods, a racially just society will remain a dream.


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