The Civil Rights Movement in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s identified a long list of issues and categories that broadly were considered to be the historical and contemporary evidence of systematic racial discrimination and injustice. As we prepare to weigh into the 2016 election year coming up fast, the critical importance of the issue of the environment for Black Americans, Latino Americans, Native Americans and other people of color communities must be reasserted.
As a young statewide coordinator for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in my home state of North Carolina from 1963 to 1968, I saw firsthand how movements for change have to first defined the issues from the perspective of the oppressed if we were ever going to have the chance to overcome longstanding systems of racial injustice.
Golden Frinks, the SCLC NC State Field Secretary, once told me, “Son, you gotta use our own definitions about these massive racial inequities without getting the permission of the perpetrators.” The wisdom that I learned from my mentor Brother Frinks has helped to guide my career over the past decades.
Thus, in 1982 during a game changing civil rights protest led by the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice in Warren County, North Carolina to challenge a racially discriminatory decision by the state concerning the environment, I remembered what Golden Frinks had taught me. The evidence that a devastating racial injustice was taking place needed to be challenged.
I was the first person to coin and define the term “environmental racism.” This was in response to a decision by North Carolina to dump over 400 tons of cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) hazardous waste into a state constructed landfill in the middle of a Black American farming community in Warren County. I and over 500 people were arrested and jailed, but we were very successful in bringing national and global attention to another serious life-threatening manifestation of racial injustice.
Environmental racism is defined as racial discrimination in the deliberated targeting of ethnic and minority communities for exposure to toxic and hazardous waste sites and facilities, coupled with the systematic exclusion of people of color in environmental policy making, enforcement, and remediation. The grassroots environmental justice movement began to grow across the United States and throughout the world.
By 1994 President Bill Clinton had issued an Executive Order 12898 on Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations “to focus federal attention on the environmental and human health effects of federal actions on minority and low-income populations with the goal of achieving environmental protection for all communities.” Subsequently the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) opened up a full-time Office of Environmental Justice.
President Barack Obama in 2014 issued a Presidential Proclamation to observe the 20th anniversary of the Clinton E.O. 12898. President Obama emphasized, “As we mark this day, we recall the activists who took on environmental challenges long before the Federal Government acknowledged their needs. We remember how Americans — young and old, on college campuses and in courtrooms, in our neighborhoods and through our places of worship — called on a Nation to pursue clean air, water, and land for all people.”
Today people of color communities are still facing the consequential horrors of exposures to environmental injustice that have led to disproportionate public health disparities and the unprecedented increase in cancer and asthma, as well as other respiratory illnesses. There is an inextricable linkage between poverty, economic inequality and environmental injustice.
But there is some good news about these challenges. Van Jones and a team of young dedicated environmental justice leaders and activists have established an effective national organization: Green For All. The mission of Green For All is to work “to build an inclusive green economy strong enough to lift people out of poverty.” I have supported and admired Van Jones’ leadership in helping to bring people of color communities together to advance to cause of equal justice and sustainable development.
Green For All. The mission of Green For All is to work “to build an inclusive green economy strong enough to lift people out of poverty.” I have supported and admired Van Jones’ leadership in helping to bring people of color communities together to advance to cause of equal justice and sustainable development.
It is also relevant to note the recently progressive Congressman Keith Ellison and Van Jones co-authored an article in The Guardian titled: “Pollution isn’t colorblind: environmental hazards are killing more black Americans.” Ellison and Jones explained, “Thanks to people’s movements like Black Lives Matter and the Fight For 15, the call for racial and economic justice is getting louder and stronger. But while we are out on the streets fighting for equality, our kids are being poisoned by the air they breathe. Environmental injustices are taking black lives – that’s why our fight for equality has to include climate and environmental justice too.”
I predict that one of the key political issues in next year’s presidential debates will be the issue of environmental justice. We have to keep on making progress. The health and quality of life of our communities are at stake. While people color now make up over 30% of the population of the United States, our issues, demands and interests cannot be triaged on the table of political expediency.
What makes me optimistic is to witness so many new young leaders and activists stepping forward to gain more ground. 2016 should be the year of advancement for all people of color and for all those who stand for freedom and equality.
Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. is the president and CEO of the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) and can be reached for national advertisement sales and partnership proposals at firstname.lastname@example.org and for lectures and other professional consultations at drbenjaminfchavisjr.wix.com/drbfc.