Reviving the Fight Against Environmental Racism

By Bryan K. Bullock

“White environmentalist talk about saving the rainforests, but no mention is ever made of saving the lives of those who dwell in America’s concrete jungles.”


It’s time to get back to basics in the struggle for true freedom for African Americans. The “basics” in this sense, means reclaiming strategies that were identified in the heady days of the 60’s and 70’s, that seem to have fallen out of vogue, while the issues that the strategies of that era were created to address, remain to this day. Basic strategies like community control of the police as well as community control over the institutions and resources in black communities, are being heard again by a new generation of activists. Getting back to basics also includes re-claiming the word racism. Politicians, academics and activists have allowed the raw power of the word racism to be euphemized into words like justice, diversity, inclusion and equity, to name a few.

Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the issue of environmental racism. Black environmental activists were fighting against the placing of landfills, toxic waste dumps, abandoned buildings, lead paint, and superfund sites in their communities, because these issues were specifically affecting them in the spaces and places where they live and because white environmental activists were not coming to their rescue. Nothing has changed in that regard. What has changed is that instead of talking about environmental racism, black activists use the word environmental justice. However, racism is still the issue.

Environmental racism was either high-jacked or subsumed into, environmental justice, depending on one’s viewpoint, to recognize that poor people, regardless of race, face environmental issues in their communities. However, the overwhelming number of poor people who must deal with sprawl, abandoned buildings and brownfields, food deserts, lack of transportation (which results in the use of more cars), landfills and polluted air are still overwhelmingly black and brown. Environmental justice language talks about benefits and burdens. But African descendant people are burdened by environmental issues unequally compared to their white counterparts. To the extent that poor whites face similar environmental concerns, they have a major benefit, namely that they are often helped by the local Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council or some other local white environmental organization. Black communities don’t get the same kind of attention from white environmentalists. Additionally white environmental organizations often get grants from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or some other government agency to do “environmental justice” projects. But those grant resources rarely benefit black people. And since there are no Sierra Clubs in the hood, white environmentalists don’t live in the communities that are the focus of the environmental justice grants and so they don’t even know what issues exists in these populations. White environmentalists are purposely or naively blind to the racism that is still entrenched within their organizations and therefore can’t see the racism behind the environmental issues in black communities.

“Environmental racism was either high-jacked or subsumed into, environmental justice.”

This is why they do not focus their efforts on the special environmental concerns of people of color. They are basically concerned about preserving pristine wild areas, but not about poverty stricken urban areas. White environmentalist talk about saving the rainforests, but no mention is ever made of saving the lives of those who dwell in America’s concrete jungles. When they talk of clean air and clean water they rarely seem to apply that concern to those who live in majority black cities where factories, landfills and waste incinerators are located. The hole in the ozone layer and global warming, although very important topics, never seem to have black victims who need help to escape from rising temperatures. There is great talk of saving endangered species, like white polar bears, yet not many environmentalists ever discuss saving young black men who many also consider to be an endangered species.

New organizations and coalitions spring up to take the issue of environmental justice, yet few deal with environmental racism. The Moral Monday Movement has working groups to address environmental justice, yet environmental racism is not on the agenda. They talk about issues like net metering and solar panels, none of which specifically address the needs of poor black people. The white environmental justice advocates in the Moral Monday Movement are rarely concerned with racism and the specific environmental issues facing black populations. They, like other majority-led working groups and organizations, live in a white world where what’s good for the suburbs and the rainforests are good for everyone. They can’t fathom the fact black and brown people have particular environmental issues that are outside of their limited perspective. The result is that environmentalism is just as segregated today as it was 20 years ago.

This is why African Americans have to develop their own environmental organizations if the specific environmental issues facing African descendant people are to be dealt with. Food deserts, brownfields, toxic waste sites, landfills, transportation issues, abandoned gas stations, all affect black people in particular ways. These are issues of racism, not esoteric, pliable words like justice. All of the myriad of issues faced by black people, are the result of racism. As the Kerner Commission stated, black communities are created and maintained by racism. This is no less true when it comes to the environment in those black communities. Black activists must reclaim environmental racism and leave environmental justice to those white or multi-racial configurations that want to help them fight them racism.

“Environmentalism is just as segregated today as it was 20 years ago.”

As usual, black people cannot expect for the EPA (or the government in general), the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Greenpeace, or any other white environmental organization to address the specific needs in our communities. The NAACP has finally begun to address environmental justice (racism) in its plank of concerns, but more importantly, black and brown grassroots organizations around the country have sprung up to fight for the right to have a clean environment in their communities. Even mult-racial outfits like Moral Mondays are inadequate to the task. Black environmentalists, like the black protestors in Ferguson, must lead the charge in their own spaces and places, and white supporters will then jump on board. Ultimately, this is nothing new. It simply speaks to what happens when black people lose sight of the specifics of African experience in America and let ourselves and our issues get co-opted by better funded, less radical, reformist majority white formations like the environmental movement. Getting back to basics simply means accepting the reality of racism in America and in environmentalism, and leading our movements to address our own issues.

The environmental justice movement may be the most important civil rights issue of the 21st century. It bridges the gap between environmental concerns, civil rights and human rights. The Civil Rights Movement brought wide, sweeping change to the American landscape. Activists, attorneys and academics banded together to fight against the forces that had been allied against them, forces that waged war on their very humanity. The war to oppress people of color is an ongoing, never-ending war, as evidenced in the continuing issues of employment discrimination, police brutality, poor educational opportunities and the portrayal of the black as the criminal, coon, vixen and savage in popular culture. Landfills and hazardous waste facilities continue to be disproportionately sited in communities of color. The assault on the humanity of African-Americans and the indigenous people of America threatens their health as well as the viability of the places and spaces where they reside. The assault on the environment and human rights continues in Palestine, as the state-less, impoverished and out-gunned face unfettered harassment, destruction and death even as their lands are appropriated, occupied and destroyed. Black and brown and poor people in Gary, Indiana, find commonality in their lives with the black, brown and poor people in far flung places like the Philippines, Brazil, Nigeria, Palestine and Iraq. Yet these are commonalities that are linked by human rights and not civil rights.

“Black environmentalists, like the black protestors in Ferguson, must lead the charge in their own spaces and places.”

Chevron Refinery Fire

2012 fire at Chevron’s refinery in Richmond, CA, which has a large African American, Hispanic, and Asian population.
Communities of color and low-income communities continue to face a disproportionate burden of environmental pollution.

Poor people and people of color around the globe are threatened by economic insecurity, poverty, disenfranchisement, disinvestment, disinterest, under-education and environmental degradation. These are, in the final analysis, human problems. The food famine in Africa may be credibly linked to the famine of new and progressive black leadership due to the lack of cultivation of the fertile soil of black minds. When the colonial powers were forced to leave Asian and African lands, they divested their riches from these countries, yet they continued to make money off of the backs of the formerly oppressed. When the colonial powers left the inner city, they divested their riches, yet they continue to make money off the backs of the people still trapped there. Although the civil rights struggle challenged the myriad of social inequities facing African Americans in particular, and other people of color and poor whites as well, it has not proved to be a deterrent to the continued war against people of color and the poor.

The environmental justice movement, like other civil rights movements, has rooted its struggle in the text of American laws. Environmental justice movement members too are beginning to see that American laws, while useful and necessary, are subject to the whims of racist judges, cowardly law-makers and ambivalent law-enforcers. But the unique thing about the environmental justice movement is that the battle to live in a clean environment is one that people around the world are fighting. Human rights may hold the answer to the environmental justice movement in a way that civil rights may not. The US Constitution does not explicitly guarantee its citizens the right to a clean environment. However, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights does. Law makers and judges in America have not linked the ability of Americans to exercise their rights under the Constitution to their need for breathable air, drinkable water and unpolluted soil. Civil rights have guaranteed people of color the ability to purchase homes that they can afford. But what good is that right when one has no right not to have a landfill or a toxic waste dump located near their new home? What good does it do a person to have the right to speak freely, when they have no right to breathe clean air?

“Human rights may hold the answer to the environmental justice movement in a way that civil rights may not.”

Although the right to freedom from discrimination is a civil right guaranteed by US law, its importance is strengthened by its status as a human right. People have civil rights because they are people. Human rights exist independently of the constitution and independently of the state; they carry not only legal weight, but moral weight as well. Environmental justice provides a perfect nexus between human rights and the environment. Environmental human rights, as defined by several United Nations Declarations, include civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights, as does the concept of environmental justice. The prevailing view among US politicians is that human rights are for other countries, civil rights are for us. Practically speaking, civil rights are granted by governments; human rights exist by the fact of one being born and cannot be taken by away by governments. Civil rights may vary from nation to nation, but human rights are universal. They are as universal, natural and God-given as air, land, water and soil.

Human rights exist because the Creator created humans and the environmental justice movement exists for the same reason. Governments cannot create air, water and soil, just as they cannot create humanity. Thus, environmental justice and human rights are linked in a way that lends to a new framework of discussion of rights and responsibilities. The laws of the US seem to contemplate, recognize and accept the fact that it is socially, culturally, and legally acceptable to protect the health of some people, while knowingly placing other humans at risk. However, the Draft Declaration of Principles on Human rights and the Environment explicitly addresses the rights of people to live in an environment of clean air and water. It also includes procedural rights such as the right of people to information affecting their environment, freedom of opinion and expression to speak freely about environmental issues, education and the right to effective remedies. The declaration, most importantly, deals with duties. In particular, the duties that governments, transnational corporations and other international and national organizations have to prevent environmental degradation. The third principle of the Draft Declaration of Principles on Human Rights and the Environment states: “All persons shall be free from any form of discrimination in regard to actions and decisions that affect the environment.” Whereas the federal government’s Executive Order 12898 talks in terms of benefits and burdens, the Draft Declaration speaks a message of rights and responsibilities. Where the federal law requires federal, state and local governments to countenance disproportionate impacts, international law requires remedial action against discrimination. Governments and their subdivisions may not initiate discriminatory activities or policies, nor may they tolerate them. Under international law, they have an affirmative obligation to eliminate existing discrimination.

Aftermath of hurricane Katrina

“The Draft Declaration of Principles on Human rights and the Environment explicitly addresses the rights of people to live in an environment of clean air and water.”

Environmental injustice links the struggles of people of color and poor people around the world in real and tangible ways. The rich and powerful are linked by their ruthless attempts to maintain the status quo. The poor and marginalized are linked by their desperate need to overturn balances of power that are tilted perversely against them. The environment stretches from the ghettoes of New York and Chicago, to the impoverished communities of Gary and East Chicago, to the war torn streets of Baghdad. The people in East Chicago, Indiana, and the people in Soweto, South Africa, both are fighting governments and corporations in an effort to live in communities that are free of toxic pollutants. Citizens of Gary, Indiana and Laos, Nigeria, are pawns, victims and beneficiaries of industries that pollute their environment, influence their lawmakers and yet provide needed jobs. The industrialized nations of the world have produced great prosperity and great industrial waste. The citizens of East Chicago and Gary have benefited from the steel mills in their communities and they have been burdened by polluted air, contaminated water and hopelessly polluted soil.

Poor people and people of color continue to have to fight for information and disclosure from governments and corporations regarding the environmental hazards and health effects of these hazards. Indeed, the inability to have a voice in the decision-making process leads to further isolation, marginalization and victimization of the poor and people of color. The Global Consultation on the Right to Development as a Human Right states: Development strategies which have been oriented merely towards economic growth and financial considerations have failed to a large extent to achieve social justice; human rights have been infringed, directly and through the depersonalization of social relations, the breakdown of families and communities, of social and economic life.

“War is the greatest environmental hazard and the greatest threat to humanity ever created.”

One of the greatest threats to the environment and to democracy, are the secret and undemocratic meetings of international bodies like the G20 and so-called free trade agreements. If a particular environmental regulation is deemed to be restrictive of trade, the US may be forced to repeal the law in the name of international trade. These are human rights and environmental justice concerns. As one author has written, “Examination of the socio-cultural context of environmental degradation leads to the clear conclusion that, in spite of international and national structures establishing inalienable rights for all people, some people experience greater harm than others, and in many cases this differential experience is a result of government-induced and/or government-sanctioned action.” In the context of both human rights and environmental justice, the “some people” the author mentions are overwhelmingly people of color.

War is the greatest environmental hazard and the greatest threat to humanity ever created. Black and brown people from poor communities like Gary and Detroit, are shipped off to foreign lands to fight other poor black and brown people. In the process, they detonate mega-ton bombs, destroying the physical environment, killing people, and forever severing the bonds of humanity. Uranium-tipped ordnance contaminates the physical environment and the bodies of its victims. The indiscriminate bulldozing of homes in the West Bank and Gaza wreak havoc on the physical infrastructure of an entire society. In the parlance of the environmental justice movement, when one speaks of benefits and burdens, it must be understood that no one benefits from hatred and war.

All countries that have nuclear power produce nuclear waste. And all too often, it is the most vulnerable people in their respective nations who store the most waste in their backyards, in their skins and bones and in the genes of their children. We face the greatest environmental hazard the world has ever seen in the proliferation and use of nuclear weapons. Devices that, once detonated, have the capacity to alter weather patterns, contaminate soil and air for generations and destroy the natural and human ecology beyond recognition threaten the very survival of the planet we live on. If the link between environmental justice and human rights cannot be made within the context of war, then no linkage is possible.

“We face the greatest environmental hazard the world has ever seen in the proliferation and use of nuclear weapons.”

Community activists in urban areas must link their struggles with community activists around the world. Local environmental justice activists must understand that Palestinians, Iraqis, Nigerians and Burmese face the same problems of poverty, discrimination and marginalization. Just as Malcolm X and W.E.B. DuBois recognized that the struggles of Patrice Lumuumba, Jomo Kenyatta and Cesar Chavaz were similar to their own struggles, environmental justice activists of today must relate their struggles to activists in faraway lands. We must recognize that although we are separated by land, sea and language, we are united in our desire to be reclaim and maintain our basic humanity. The environmental justice movement holds the potential for human rights activists to see the similarities of their problems, the similarities in the tactics of their oppressors and the similarities in the solutions. When that day comes, the oppressed people of the world, regardless of race, color or religion, will speak with one unifying voice, saying “No more” to those who seek to locate toxic waste facilities, landfills and medical wastes in our communities. As Malclolm X stated, when we begin to see ourselves as a majority that can demand, instead of a minority that must beg, we can literally move the world toward a just, sustainable, clean, multi-racial and respectful new world order.

Bryan K. Bullock is a civil rights attorney and activist from Gary, Indiana. He was habeas counsel for men detained in Guantanamo Bay and is a frequent contributor to Truthout.Org.