The Quest for Environmental Justice: Where Do We Go From Here?

Section I: What is Going On?

Environmental racism is the deliberate placement of hazardous waste sites, landfills, incinerators, and polluting industries inhabited by people of color mainly Black, Latino, and Native Americans but is not limited to all people of color and the working poor (Bernier: 3). Our society would benefit from addressing this issue by confronting the wrongs those in power have committed but, it would also bring together all walks of life across race, class, and gender lines. The Earth is the only planet that we can inhabit that we are aware of; However, even if there were another planet within our technological reach, there is no justification for the mistreatment of minorities. This abuse had gone on for decades until the 1970s when the issue of environmental racism was brought to the forefront. Since then activists and environmental law groups have been fighting for environmental justice for black and brown people. What is happening is that governments from the local to federal level are allowing environmental racism to continue by turning a blind eye to people of color and the working-poor living near hazardous areas.

Environmental racism can affect anyone who isn’t a part of the power players involved in making decisions. Although through history and context, we have a general idea of who those people are, and that is people of color. Environmental racism isn’t limited to one geographic area these atrocities occur worldwide and is just as rife here in the United States as other areas. Racial discrimination is a defining factor when it comes to environmental policymaking, the enforcement of regulations and laws, the deliberate targeting of communities of color for toxic waste disposal (Dicochea, 2012). Furthermore, environmental racism is evident in the green lighting life-threatening pollutants in communities of color as well as the exclusion of people of color on predominantly white, mainstream environmental groups, decision-making boards, commissions, and regulatory agencies making uninformed decisions about the lives of nonwhite minorities (Dicochea, 2012).

The problem has long been occurring but with rampant economic abandonment and blatant disregard for human lives in minority communities the environmental justice movement was given birth in the mid-1970s. Currently, in the United States, the environmental racism situation is rather bleak, being that you have cities like Flint, Michigan who have knowingly been without fresh water since 2014 (Posey: 2014). The lead infused water crisis of 2014 in Flint stemmed from an effort to save about five million dollars in taxpayer money which meant by switching from purchasing treated water from Lake Huron near Detroit to using water from the Flint River (Posey: 2014). Up until 1967, Flint used the Flint River to provide water for the city. However, with the discovery of the toxicity of the river city water officials prohibited the usage of the river as a viable water source (Posey: 2014). Once that decision was implemented in Flint, the water supply became inundated with lead leaving an estimated six to twelve thousand children exposed to lead (Posey: 2014). Lead is a known toxic element to anyone. However, children are more susceptible to poisoning due to toxic playgrounds and toys painted with lead paint, or in Flint’s case toxic water (Posey: 2014). When city officials ignored this fact, outrage sparked both regionally and nationally (Posey: 2014). At the center of any environmental racism situation, there is usually a racial minority or ethnic group that is faced with blatant disregard for their health and well-being at a disproportionate rate to whites. Just like any other environmental racism case, Flint was no different. Cases like Flint need to be examined critically at all levels of oppression to address the systematic negligence leading up to this crisis (Posey: 2014).

Equitably fixing these issues will benefit everyone involved, improving their overall quality of life, health benefits, jobs paying a living wage, as well as an overall mind, body, and spiritual boost. “Green-collar” jobs are the wave of an environmentally sustainable future. If implemented at full capacity these new jobs providing a living wage will 1) lift minority and working class communities from the poverty stricken trenches to an upwardly mobile lifestyle and 2) healing the Earth’s ecosystems (Jones, 2008: 71). As our economy develops solar and wind energy at a more rapid rate we have to ensure that environmental organizations, as well as black and brown folks, have a seat at the table to discuss issues regarding them directly (Jones, 2008:71). Environmental equity is the ultimate goal when it comes to seeing a clearer path forward. We can no longer push forth legislation that is racially imbalanced and uncontested. For far too long white middle-class environmental groups have fought for their minor environmental injustices which have had a broad coalition of support but has remained virtually silent when it comes to more severe environmental justice atrocities like Hurricane Katrina of 2005. Gone are the days of dishonest lip service to people of color’s environmental issues. There is enough support and know-how within the minority community to move forward with a robust agenda that will uplift all races, classes, and genders or those that don’t conform to gender at all.

Environmental racism is one of the many pervasive offshoots of capitalism that works well within the Matrix of Domination. I’ll briefly explain the Matrix of Domination here: oppression occurs at various levels like that of race, gender, and class according to Patricia Hill-Collins. Collins asserts that these categories are all interconnected to form our identities in a not so “black and white” world that Eurocentric thought would have us believe (Collins: 2000). Once we as a society begin to understand the intricacies of environmental racism, we will see a clear path forward. That kind of path is not impossible, but it will take a broad coalition of people to works towards an equitable future where no particular group is cast aside regardless of their race, class, gender, or sexual orientation. In the short term, society will see an overall improvement in minorities’ upward mobility, and in the long run, we will have divested our interdependence on fossil fuels while investing in clean energy that will not bring harm to minority communities or Earth’s fragile ecosystems.

Section II: What Are We Doing Now?

The Environmental Justice Movement began in order to call attention to and organize against environmental racism, which is often left out of the mainstream, mainly white, environmental advocacy agendas (WE ACT: 2016). Most of the issues which now fall under the category of “environmental justice” have been matters of considerable concern among communities of color for many years (Bernier: 5). The characteristics of the issues that have been affecting our communities of color are part of discriminatory patterns of housing, land use, transportation, employment opportunities, occupational status, political disenfranchisement, and access to information and medical care (Bernier: 5). All of these factors have been associated with mental and physical health issues in poor communities and communities of color (Bernier: 5) Furthermore; currently, organizations are working through organized resistance efforts to eradicate environmental inequalities through an equitable process that will uplift those affected communities.

What Needs Work?:

The Center on Race, Poverty, and the Environment is located in the San Joaquin Valley of California, an area home to some of the worst air pollution and largest waste areas west of the Mississippi River (CRPE: 2016). The San Joaquin Valley area lacks essential communal and political resources due to the area being one of the poorest regions in the nation (CRPE: 2016). The CRPE was founded in 1989 by Ralph Abascal and Luke Cole both civil rights attorneys whose specialties are representing low-income communities and workers working towards achieving community-based and led environmental justice struggles (CRPE: 2016). CRPE believes social change comes from the ground up meaning that communities with legal advocates have to drive the conversation around what policies would work best for their community (CRPE: 2016). However, one aspect that CRPE is missing is the notion of having an interdisciplinary and intersectional coalition of people from all levels advising on their various collaborative boards.

Secondly, their efforts are primarily based on one of their impact areas which is sustainable agriculture. “Sustainable agriculture is the production of food, fiber, or other plant or animal products using farming techniques that protect the environment, public health, human communities, and animal welfare (GRACE Communities Foundation).” In no way am I advocating for downplaying sustainable agriculture and all the benefits that CRPE has been able to recognize and achieve. However, sustainable agriculture is not the only facet of attaining real environmental justice. Putting the majority of the effort on one impact area is a short-sighted path to environmental justice, and you’d be hard pressed to get anyone to get behind only one cause for environmental justice.

What Isn’t Working?:

The National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC), a federal advisory committee to the Environmental Protection Agency which was established in September 1993 (NEJAC: 2016). The Council provides advice and recommendations about broad, cross-cutting issues related to environmental justice, from all stakeholders involved in the environmental justice dialogue (NEJAC: 2016). Also, the NEJAC provides a valuable forum for discussions about integrating environmental justice with other EPA priorities and initiatives (NEJAC: 2016). The NEJAC provides independent advice and recommendations to the EPA Administrator (NEJAC:p 2016). The Council’s efforts include the evaluation of a broad range of strategic, scientific, technological, regulatory, community engagement, and economic issues related to environmental justice (NEJAC: 2016).

Although the NEJAC was created to act independently of the EPA, most of its decisions and recommendations are titular. NEJAC’s views though altruistic and ambitious are lip service at best. Often in most governmental bodies, there is a failure to adequately address the structural causes that have created the issue in the first place, and the NEJAC is guilty of doing just that. In the same vein, the EPA’s Office of Civil Rights has not filed a discrimination case in 22 years (Buford: 2017). It wouldn’t be hard to see the office’s connection to NEJAC within this critique being that the group’s intended purpose is to assess and recommend solutions to threats of environmental justice.

What Is Working?:

WE ACT for Environmental Justice was started in 1988 when three fearless community leaders saw that environmental racism was rampant in their West Harlem neighborhood, and they demanded community-driven political change (WE ACT: 1988). Today, the organization has grown to over 2 locations in NYC and Washington, D.C., and is considered an active and respected participant in the National Environmental Justice Movement (WE ACT: 2017). The impact WE ACT has had on their community has proved to be highly effective. WE ACT is plugged into all the mechanisms vital to achieving change. WE ACT is an environmental health watchdog, they have members connected to academia and research, WE ACT is one of the main forces behind pushing the well-being of Harlem’s residents but all New Yorkers as well, and lastly is a champion for effective environmental policy enforcement.

In 2016, alongside partners, WE ACT helped to pass the country’s first “Safe School Water Act,” which mandates testing and remediation for the element lead in all New York State schools (WE ACT: 2016). In 2017, WE ACT was instrumental in passing NYC’s “Environmental Justice Study Bill” (359) and “Environmental Justice Policy Bill” (886A), which provides the city and all New Yorkers more information to identify and address environmental injustices (WE ACT 2017). Their programs are highly effective being that they have broad-based community programs that have members from varying disciplines, but their bread and butter is achieved mainly through community action and engagement. Making an effort to focus on all levels is what WE ACT has done and continues to do, even so, that they were a part of The First People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington D.C.(WE ACT: 2016). At the event, The Principles of Environmental Justice were created and agreed upon, and still stand as a guiding set of principles for the Environmental Justice Movement today (WE ACT: 2016).

Learning from the organizations mentioned above we now what works and what doesn’t work. From that knowledge, there is a way forward that builds off of past successes and failures. The CRPE, NEJAC, and WE ACT for Environmental Justice all have the right idea in mind with some the same outlined goals, however, the tactics in which they are reaching those goals all vary. The CRPE while being a champion in the San Joaquin Valley of California has to broaden its horizons beyond sustainable agriculture. NEJAC has to acknowledge the structural mechanisms at play that keeps minorities and the poor in a vulnerable place in society. Lastly, WE ACT has done a great job of not becoming short-sighted while garnering support from the community, business, and political levels. For future organizations or individuals, it’s going to take an intersectional and intergenerational collaborative of players willing to put forth the time and effort it’s going to take to resist both formally and informally.

Section III: Where Do We Go From Here?:

Moving forward with the issues of environmental racism and its past successes and failures we now have a clear path forward with regard to what can be done to reverse the adverse effects of Environmental racism. Building from the triumphs of organizations and individuals dedicated to environmental justice work it is time to put together an all-encompassing organization that is intersectional and decentralized to further the work of resisting environmental racism. No longer can we as a society sit around and expect different results by repeating the same antiquated practices. The way forward is through a highly effective network of individuals and organizations from all levels of society from the homeless man in Brooklyn growing fresh food to the CEO focusing her efforts on Energy Equity. The movement for environmental Justice has gone from this phenomenon that was barely on the radar to finally getting recognition in the 1970s to now being at the forefront of issues plaguing society today; it is imperative that we continue to fight for our planet and all of its inhabitants.

Now that we know the failures and successes, we will move forward as a network of environmental organizations and individuals working within an intersectional and decentralized structure that shares information and tactics worldwide. The reasoning behind a decentralized structure is that the government has typically reacted violently to resistance movements from the Black Panthers to the MOVE organization of Philadelphia. For example, Fred Hampton of the Black Panther Party. Hampton was shot and killed by a para military force within the Chicago police department. One of the main reasons for this assassination was that the Black Panther Party had a male led centralized structure that was easily infiltrated by the FBI’s COINTELPRO group. Even within the realm of fighting environmental racism, we must be cognizant of these past events to avoid such atrocities while maintaining momentum for achieving real change.

The stakeholders involved in this movement for environmental change are the people of the collaborating organizations and the residents of the communities involved. Community involvement is going to be the “bread and butter” of this decentralized network because they will be educated about the mechanisms of capitalism and how it plays a role in their demise while also learning about influencing policies so that they can advocate for themselves. Upon educating the communities on the issues affecting them, the network grows organically by making community members stewards of the environment and assets to the environmental justice system. What we are working towards in pushing our agenda of completely eradicating environmental racism will come to fruition; while working to dismantle other systems of oppressions with the commitment to an intersectional and decentralized structure. Once achieved we’ll have a cleaner planet, communities will have all the resources they need, and environmental equity will be an automatic given whenever something new is built whether the area is rural or urban.

The collective and individual health of members of a community is the direct result of a tangible array of physical, social, cultural and spiritual factors (Bernier: 5). The emphasis on looking into the importance of the comprehensive health and well being of a community was introduced, by the work of the Environmental Justice movement (Bernier: 5). The Environmental Justice movement represents a new vision created through a series of community processes whose key objective is an unabashed public conversation about what is necessary for sustainable, healthy and vital communities (Bernier: 5). The Environmental Justice movement envisions the development of a community based, a multitask integrative paradigm that facilitates the unification, development, and permanency of healthy and sustainable communities (Bernier: 5).

Borrowing from the tactics of WE ACT for Environmental Justice this proposed network will be plugged into all the levels of society needed to move the tide of change in the proper direction away from a material based society to a people based community. The forms of resistance employed will be both formal and informal. Formal resistance will be through various programs teaching communities about the sub sections of environmental justice they are interested in like influencing policy/legislation, or education and organizing, as well as gardening and learning to retrofit their homes to make them more energy efficient. WE ACT won’t necessarily be the leader of this collaborative group. However, we will look to their efforts as a guideline for continued success.

Upon moving forward, we cannot afford to fail our constituents because if we do, then we will inevitably suffer the consequences of such a setback. We as a collaborative network has to make sure that our policy advocacy is handled with care making sure to stay on course while disrupting the status quo of the inefficient environmental justice policies of today. Climate deniers are looking for any reason to promote their planet killing ideologies to those in power, and we have to be vigilant enough to combat those policies. Doing so has to involve a racial equity piece because race is at the center of every issue that affects equity. Without the racial equity portion, this work becomes spineless and ineffective. We have to learn to Love our Black and Brown brothers and sisters just as much as we Love ourselves and the Planet.

Love is liberating. As the Black feminist author bell hooks put it without an ethic of Love, we are sure to succumb to the evil ways of the system of domination called capitalism that includes imperialism, racism, sexism, and classism (hooks, 1: 2006). To do environmental justice work through the frame of Love for me is the only way that this proposed network will work. When I talk about Love, I do not mean some abstract apparition of Love, I mean an applicable Love ethic that is not centered around our selfish desires to work on something that directly affects us. That kind of Love is what galvanizes people by the thousands which is a genuinely revolutionary effort. Love within the environmental justice movement makes a case for the people that are the furthest away from positions of power and those people are usually poor or are people of color. For far longer than the environmental justice movement has existed people of color have been advocates for the environment taking their cues from nature.

Mother Nature has taught we, humans, time and time again that she has the last say so. When natural disasters occur, we are at Her will hanging in the balance, and to that point, there is no reason that a particular group of people should be more vulnerable than others. Again in instances like that, we see the hegemonic arm of the Matrix of Domination at play. We as a society have gotten away from Loving one another so that now we can deem which groups are disposable. Our network seeks to dismantle and reframe that notion around who is human and who isn’t, we all are human and are deserving of loving ourselves and one another.

Environmental Justice and Social Justice go hand in hand. We cannot authentically work on Environmental Justice issues without discussing the social implications of the environment on people of color and vice versa. Our planet’s climate is changing at a rapid rate, leaving some people able to mitigate these changes while others are cast to the wayside. For far too long people of color are being killed off silently and slowly in our homes, jobs, and at school. The situation in Flint is dire, but that instance is not America’s only environmental racism issue. But what can we do to fix that? Cue the network of intersectional and interdisciplinary organizations working towards eradicating instances like Flint here in America and abroad. It is up to us the scholars, the organizers, the students, the families, and communities to stand up and engage each other on this pressing issue that is plaguing people of color. In my humble opinion working to drive out environmental racism is the catalyst for achieving racial equity. Our environment is where we live, work, play, praise, and eat. Protecting those fundamental human rights should matter to everyone, but that is not currently the case. Nonetheless, I believe through the implementation of a 1) decentralized, 2) intersectional, and 3) interdisciplinary system of organizations we can reach environmental equity.

The Love we have for our families and friends should be the same kind of Love that we have for our planet and our fellow neighbor. Environmental Justice is about achieving equity for both people and our planet; we have nowhere else to go, so it’s high time we relinquish stigmas and welcome Love. I’m not saying that this will be a smooth path and I may not even live to see these actions come to fruition. However, it is up to us right now to decide to take the correct path towards equitably achieving environmental justice.