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Expanding the Dialogue
has been expanded, and a new
Another effort that warrants
Meanwhile, we are trying to improve the opportunities for those already in the workforce. Since 1986, EPA has awarded almost $3 million in grants to the National Association of Minority Contractors to train firms run by minorities and women in the fields of hazardous waste removal and management, asbestos abatement,
removal of leaky underground tanks, substantial sewer and water projects and radon mitigation and remediation. (see article on page 61), will invest This year, the Agency will start a new over $200 million implementing the training program in the removal of
border plan. lead-based paints. And, acting through The whole country, meanwhile, its small and disadvantaged business stands to reap enormous health office over the past two years, EPA has benefits from the historic Clean Air awarded more than $915 million in Act of 1990, which promises cleaner, contracts, grants, and cooperative clearer skies for all Americans-and agreements to companies owned by especially for those who live in our minorities. This program provides jobs largest and smoggiest cities. According in minority-owned firms to help clea to the South Coast Air Quality up the environment, and it constitutes Management District in Los Angeles, a singularly effective, practical, and California, children in the smoggiest tangible way to broaden the
areas suffer a 10-to 15-percent constituency for environmental
reduction in lung function compared improvement.
with those in less polluted areas. Some It is also undeniable that minorities 15 million African Americans (50 usually benefit from—are, indeed, percent of the total) will be winners sometimes the chief beneficiaries
because of EPA's efforts to bring the of-more general efforts to protect the most severely affected areas into environment. New pesticide
compliance. Over 8.5 million regulations, for example, will soon be Hispanics (60 percent of the total) will in effect to protect farm workers and similarly gain from a vigorously others exposed to these compounds implemented Clean Air Act. from unsafe uses and storage practices.
Failures to achieve perfect equity in In 1991, we issued a final rule
environmental matters are woven, reducing the amount of lead in
along with other threads of triumph drinking water, with the highest risks and defeat, into the full tapestry of being targeted for treatment first. We American history. They are, in fact expect that neurological threats to over symptomatic of larger patterns of 20 million children will be reduced industrial growth and neglect and of and that about 100,000 additional sad legacies of inherited poverty and children will avoid detrimental effects. discrimination. It will take time and This year, EPA will propose banning hard work to mend the fabric. lead solder and limiting lead in
Restrained by resources, jurisdiction, plumbing fixtures. We also expect to and knowledge, a government agency propose tightening the national
is necessarily limited in its capacity to ambient air quality standard for lead in affect larger cultural and social trends. the atmosphere.
Yet, within its domain, an agency of The border zone between the United the United States States and Mexico is an environmental government-situated as it is in long hot spot, and the inevitable result is a traditions of governance that compel rather severe set of environmental close attention to questions of threats to the Hispanic populations
equity-must make every possible there. Dysentery and hepatitis levels
effort to redress obvious wrongs. At are high. In fact, these areas may be EPA, although we have just begun, we among the highest risk environments are well begun. O in the country. According to a new bilateral plan for the area, EPA and its Mexican counterpart are jointly expanding efforts to ensure adequate wastewater treatment and drinking water facilities where none now exist in poor border settlements, commonly called "colonias." Mexico is committed to providing $460 million over the next three years to environmental improvements in the region. In the next fiscal year, EPA, in addition to its
• The publication of research linking race, class, and disproportionate exposures to toxins
• The revelation that minority communities were targeted for the siting of hazardous environmental facilities
minorities were not involved in the
They are participating in a sector of placed a low priority on environmental
justice. Why are minorities issues or they were not as
participating so actively now? Why do knowledgeable as whites about the
they participate in the environmental environment. However, minorities
justice sector and not in the traditional have changed that debate.
or well-established sectors of the Since the late 1980s, large numbers
movement? What have been the effects of minorities have become involved
of minority activism? Are minorities with the environmental movement.
likely to participate in large numbers
sectors of the movement?
• The revelation that minorities were
in minority environmental activism. Studies and the Yale Department of Here are some of the most important Sociology, has written often on the environmental justice movement.)
Expanding the Dialogue
workshops on the issue of
seeks to promote fairness in future and respect minority participation. In environmental and social justice environmental actions.
the environmental justice movement, • A redefinition of what issues were
In contrast to the traditional and minorities can take a leadership role or considered "environmental"
well-established environmental groups, they can be equals with whites
interested in the same issues. The linkage of civil rights issues
Minority participation has had a with environmental issues
profound effect on the whole
environmental movement. It has The emergence of committed activists and leaders. People of color feel
provided the environmental justice comfortable participating in sector with the best and brightest As many communities woke up to the environmental justice
minority environmental activists, the reality that they were contaminated movement because it is a
leaders, scholars, and policy makers. It or had hazardous facilities in them, movement founded on the
has provided the race, class, and
ethnic diversity so sadly lacking in some organized to prevent further principles of fairness and
other sectors of the movement, and it exposures and sitings. About the same justice. time, research revealed that black,
has provided a platform from which to Hispanic, Native American, and Asian
articulate the goals and concerns of a communities not only were more
broad-based grass-roots movement. likely to have hazardous facilities, but heavily on volunteer support to carry
In the larger environmental that the facilities were deliberately
movement, minority participation has out daily operations. They have few, if
broadened the debate to include many sited in these communities because any, paid staff. They are kept going by
issues which were being ignored. they were seen as "paths of least
the strong moral and political resistance.” As minorities began
Minority participation has also forced commitments of their members and by paying increased attention to health
a dialogue about race, class, the personal zeal that volunteers bring risks and disproportionate exposure,
discrimination, and equity. Because of to the cause. They tend to be informal environmental activism intensified.
minority participation, the plight of and to have a limited hierarchical This increased activism manifested
minority communities has been structure. These groups, which are itself in the call for environmental and often small in size, rely heavily on
brought to the forefront. Minorities
have also brought a new perspective to social justice for people of color and membership donations and on
the movement and will be a part of the poor. It linked civil rights with contributions of time and other environmental rights and re-introduced nonmonetary resources like phone
any future environmental agenda that civil rights campaign strategies into
is being charted. By participating, lines, space to store materials, food,
minorities have also been able to show environmental campaigns. So, housing for visiting organizers, and
how distanced most traditional and although many researchers have supplies. They run highly symbolic
well-established environmental argued that minorities are too busy campaigns in which members and struggling to meet basic needs to be
organizations have become from the supporters participate in concerned with environmental issues,
grass roots and the environmental demonstrations, picketing, petition minorities have redefined
concerns they have. drives, boycotts, and nonviolent environmental issues as survival issues obstructions. Recruiting is not done
I predict that large numbers of and have been organizing around them from national mailing lists; people, on
minorities will continue to join the at unprecedented rates.
environmental justice sector because the spur of the moment, recruit The environmental justice movement friends, families, or coworkers to
those who already belong are
committed to mobilizing more is a sector in which blacks, whites, participate.
minorities around environmental Native Americans, Hispanics, and
People of color feel comfortable
issues. I also predict that very few Asians from various social classes and participating in the environmental
minorities will join the other sectors of ethnic groups unite to fight a wide justice movement because it is a
the environmental movement. Unless array of issues that affect humans, movement founded on the principles
the traditional and well-established flora, fauna, and the physical
of fairness and justice. It is a environment locally, nationally, and
sectors make radical changes to their movement committed to building race internationally. It is a movement
agenda, their attitudes towards and class coalitions. It is driven by
minorities, their coverage and support which recognizes that injustices have grass-roots activism, and there is a
of issues affecting minority occurred in the past that stem from strong articulation of civil rights and racism and discrimination. Such
communities, their hiring policies, social justice. The movement provides practices have put communities of
their analysis of how and which the political space to articulate and color at risk. The movement seeks work on issues relevant to minority
communities are impacted by remedies for these past injustices and
environmental hazards, then few communities in ways that encourage
minorities will find these organizations attractive enough to join.
A few predominantly white environmental organizations, like Greenpeace and the Center for Environmental Intern Programs (CEIP Fund, Inc.), have taken up the challenge from minority environmental activists and have collaborated on many projects with minority groups or have worked on the issue of job preparation and placement. For the most part, however, most environmental organizations not a part of the environmental justice sector are devoid of minority members, staff, or board members. They complain that they can't find "qualified" minorities to fill positions in their organizations. However, such claims have to be questioned because there seems to be no shortage of such minorities in the environmental justice sector.
Although there has been some unease between minorities and the traditional and well-established sectors of the movement, there are signs that both groups might be able to work together in the future. Many nonminority environmental groups sent observers to the First National People of Color Leadership Summit last October, and the number of collaborative projects is growing. Both minority and nonminority environmental groups have strengths that each can benefit from, but if these two different groups are to develop a meaningful relationship, many radical changes are required. O
he statistics are plentiful and they
are frightening. Three out of four toxic waste dumps are sited in predominantly African American or Latino communities. Two million tons of radioactive uranium tailings have been dumped on Native American lands. Three hundred thousand Latino farm laborers suffer from pesticide-related illnesses. This is a national disgrace.
Statistics like these reflect a nationwide pattern of disproportionate environmental impact on people of color and the poor. This pattern stems from a profound flaw in the structure of the U.S. economy: Polluters do not absorb the costs of the environmental degradation they create, and society as a whole does not confront the problems and solve them. Instead, the problems are displaced. It is easier for a company to locate its factory or waste facility in eastern St. Louis than in the Upper East Side of Manhattan; it is cheaper for state governments to disregard the lead poisoning of poor children than to test and treat them as federal law requires. What this means
is that we are building our economy on the backs of people of color and the poor.
Not to recognize this syndrome is to ignore one of the driving forces of environmental degradation in this country. The fact of disproportionate impact demands a disproportionate effort. Federal and state governments must direct a disproportionate share of clean-up funds and other environmental funding to these communities. The national environmental organizations must devote a disproportionate share of their resources to the public health problems affecting them.
But this alone is not enough. The environmental justice movement that has arisen to address the concerns of these communities is one of the strongest new forces for environmental reform to emerge in years. If we are to remain truly effective, the national environmental groups must strive to become allies of this movement and of the communities it represents.
This alliance will not take place overnight. It will require a great deal of work on the part of the national groups. We have been criticized by environmental justice activists, and there is much to criticize—the predominantly white staffs, the cultural barriers that have damaged and impeded joint efforts with activists
(Adams is Executive Director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, headquartered in New York City.)
of color. The history is well documented: The mainstream environmental movement grew out of a white, middle-class effort to preserve the world's natural wonders. It is still true that the staffs of the major national organizations are disproportionately white and middle class, and it is not defensible.
It is critical that the national environmental groups listen to people of color on their own terms.
The environmental justice movement
is one of the
strongest new forces for reform.
Environmental justice activists have also criticized the priorities of the mainstream environmental movement. The movement began with wilderness conservation, and there is no question that, in its early life, its work and vision only rarely encompassed the protection of human beings. But there is also no question that this is a movement that has matured far beyond its origins. I speak for NRDC, and I know I speak for many others, when I say that for mainstream environmentalists today the two critical issues-environmental violation of the Earth and environmental violation of its human inhabitants—are inextricably intertwined.
The record speaks for itself. It is a record of commitment to clean air, clean water, land that is safe to live on and work on. These are not abstract values or values limited to national parks and wildlife preserves. They are values that have led NRDC to dedicate the bulk of our resources to the very public health problems that impact communities of color disproportionately.
For two decades, we have been working to clean up the smog that concentrates in the inner city and that can cause long-term lung damage. We have been striving to end toxic pollution of drinking water supplies. Our efforts helped lead to the phaseout of leaded gasoline, which was
Kurt Rogers photo San Francisco Examiner.