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Expanding the Dialogue
Some observers argue that the
Copyright Sam Kittner.
he answer is clearly no.
There are at least three ways to measure the benefits of the environmental movement to people of color: socially, economically, and environmentally. • The social aspects of the environmental movement have, almost without exception, systematically excluded people of color. People of color are underrepresented at managerial and decision-making levels of both governmental and nongovernmental environmental organizations, including my own. Academic "feeder" programs in environmental science and policy fail to recruit and retain people of color, and environmental organizations fail to hire those who do pursue such studies
(primarily Chinese- and
continue to revere and protect natural Japanese-Americans). Finally, the jobs
and scenic beauties of the Earth. And and contracts generated by
it will be driven by a quest for environmental activity have fallen
environmental justice, or it will primarily to white workers and
become irrelevant. We at the Sierra contractors.
Club are committed to beginning our • The economic effects of
second century with increased, not
decreased, relevance for all the people environmental policy are almost
of this nation. always regressive (in that they fall more heavily on low-income groups
(Fischer is Executive Director of the than on people in middle- and
Sierra Club.) high-income brackets). The lack of attention to the distributive consequences of environmental policy also disproportionately impacts people of color.
is an incontestible fact that people Juana Beatriz Gutiérrez
of color and the poor of America • Finally, the existing evidence
have borne the brunt of suffering from points to great disparities in the incidence of environmental quality.
polluting industries and other
undesirable development. Whether People of color have radically less
intended or not (and too often it has access to this country's natural areas,
been intended), economic growth and and, in our urban environments, face
land use decisions have been based on greater pollution. Most disturbing is
environmental racism. Civil rights the evidence that government
have been violated; the quality of regulation exacerbates rather than
human life in urban communities has reduces these inequities. In both my
been degraded; adjacent communities own research on air pollution and the
and downstream ecosystems have been Commission for Racial Justice's work
egregiously damaged. on toxic waste sites, regulatory
We at the Sierra Club do know how activity--in its efforts to control and to make a difference at the local, state,
o, minorities in East Los Angeles improve the environment-seemed to and national levels. For 100 years, the
Nhave not benefited from the shift the remaining burden of pollution Sierra Club has honed citizen action environmental movement. Although more heavily on the backs of
skills to pressure polluters, elected the Mothers of East Los Angeles communities of color.
officials, and government agencies to participated in the 20th anniversary of People of color are a majority on the pass and enforce environmental
Earth Day, our own environmental globe we all want to save. The
protection laws. The time, though, for movement is just beginning. The environmental movement must
patience, compromise, and "balance" amount of environmental abuse radically retool its approach to is long gone.
suffered by residents of our barrios is
Thousands of community-based understand, to share, and to address
just too great. And the abuse all our needs.
grass-roots organizations, led by people continues. High lead levels and high of color, have been established in
concentrations of carbon monoxide are (Gelobter is Assistant Commissioner of recent years. They possess a deep and directly attributed to those freeways so Environmental Quality for the
righteous anger not seen since the enthusiastically built for “progress.” Department of Environmental
beginning of the civil rights movement. Virtually every family in Los Protection of New York City.)
It is a just passion which now must Angeles can claim a tragedy of one drive the Sierra Club and other
form or another. Asthma, leukemia, organizations of the established
lingering coughs, and more serious environmental movement. Our mission illnesses are now believed to be a has been broadened, and we have been direct result of our environment, even pushed to new heights of commitment though the government will not admit and effectiveness in order to meet the to it. Closer to home, three young challenges of environmental injustice. women experienced miscarriages in
The environmental movement of the the last two years—one of them my 1990s will be multicultural. It will
Expanding the Dialogue
daughter, another my daughter-in-law.
Only recently have we begun to
environmental movement should be several EPA employees wrote a letter
to the Editor identifying major
advent of a major national summit
This issue is now at a juncture
where it will become a moral issue for
organizations, offer grants to minority
academics, and spin-control the issue,
believe our Agency has more sense
than this. environmentalists want Cheyenne
(Varela is in EPA's Office of
And where is our federal trustee, the
ince 1492, little has changed in
terms of the non-Indian's concept of the environment. What they have failed to learn over 500 years is that there is a profound spiritual dimension to the environment. Religion, culture, spirituality, environment are one and the same to Indian people.
Existing environmental laws are not being implemented to protect the sacred places of Indian tribes. Indeed, we often find ourselves fighting environmentalists to protect our ancestral lands and treaty rights. In order to protect our sacred places, we are now asking Congress to amend the Indian Religious Freedom Act, and the
y first reaction to the question is
to pose another: Have minorities shared equitably in any situation where there is a majority and a minority culture? The answer is an obvious no. However, dwelling on the negative is not where the real answer lies. Rather, we must take action to try to make life better for all of us.
From my own story, I decided to contribute my talents to Chinatown, feeling that few outsiders cared about her. In 1976, through a University of California at Berkeley community design course, I interned with the
Committee for Better Parks and
Recently, I became involved with Sierra Club because it has political clout, which I intend to use to benefit Chinatown, and because many Sierra Club members care about the urban environment. Further, I wanted to make important changes within the organization.
The long road of change for Sierra Club is not only in its membership, which is mostly white upper-middle class, but in how it handles issues. The environmental movement needs to take into account the needs of the entire population. It must not shirk responsibility for a particular community's environment on the grounds that "they need” the jobs. Although it is true that the movement did not begin with equal concern about "wild" versus urban environments, I am pleased to find that some mainstream environmental groups are now working with communities to eliminate toxins in urban areas. Because the air we breathe is shared equally by all, we must work together to cleanse our Earth for everyone and not waste energy on past inequities. How we respond to this challenge will determine whether we preserve the lifeline of the Earth.
Senator Daniel K. Inouye
another $45 million would be required to either upgrade or close, as appropriate, other solid waste disposal sites on Indian lands.
A bill is now before Congress to amend RCRA and empower tribal governments to manage solid and hazardous waste on Indian lands. It is important to note that other federal statutes include provisions stipulating that tribal governments should receive the same treatment as states, whereas RCRA currently does not. The proposed amendments to RCRA would
not only recognize tribal governments' he civil rights movement gave birth authority but also make them eligible to laws intended to grant
to receive funds to assist them in minorities the same powers, privileges, developing solid waste management and protections accorded other
regulations. Such regulations would Americans. The environmental
accomplish several things: provide for movement inspired statutes meant to
the management of waste generated on benefit all Americans, regardless of
reservations; authorize the cleanup of race or income. Despite these
open and unauthorized dump sites; progressive laws, inequities remain. A
and enable the development of case in point: American Indians lack
regulations governing the operation of the
and means to deal with commercial solid waste projects on power solid waste disposal problems on their
Indian lands. own tribal lands.
It is my hope that Congress and the Like state and local governments
nation will act to rectify this and other across the country, tribal governments
environmental inequities in the United are confronted with a mounting crisis
States. in solid waste disposal. In Indian
(Senator Inouye (D-Hawaii) is territory, there are currently 650 solid
Chairman of the Select Committee on
Based on a preliminary estimate
(Ow-Wing, an architect, is co-chair of
n its issue commemorating the 20th
anniversary of Earth Day, EPA Journal spoke volumes about the state of affairs in 1970. The only people of color in the entire issue were a lone American Indian and the inhabitants of a Chinese village. Change has come slowly. While the environmental laws
Expanding the Dialogue
may be colorblind, many of the
Beverly Wright conditions which gave rise to the disparate impact of environmental problems on minority communities are not. Colorblind solutions will not solve these problems.
The focus of the civil rights enforcement effort, from about 1970 until recently, was on problems of equal access and nondiscriminatory administration of federally assisted programs. Although the term was not in use, the environmental equity issue was nevertheless there. In the wake of much criticism, certain federal agencies began to address, within their areas of jurisdiction, the issue of disparate impacts of federally funded ust recently, I was asked by the programs on minority
U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to communities—e.g., the Department of testify at an environmental equity Transportation and the location and hearing conducted by the Louisiana impact of the interstate highway
Advisory Committee to the system; the Department of Housing commission. My charge was to present and Urban Development and the
an overview of social justice issues location of low-cost and subsidized related to the environment in housing projects.
Louisiana. I was asked specifically to Until the mid 1980s, EPA's primary respond to the question whether concern in terms of civil rights
hazardous waste storage, disposal, and enforcement was the construction
treatment practices impacted with grants program and the racial
greater frequency and intensity on composition of the communities to be
minority communities. The difficulty served by wastewater treatment
in answering this question-indeed, systems. The problem of minority the fact that the question was being communities' exclusion from that
asked-reflects the relative lack of program due to geographical or
attention government has given to political boundaries was largely
possible environmental effects on eliminated some time ago. However, minority communities. other problems, affected by a wide A similar dilemma presents itself range of EPA programs, remain.
when I attempt to answer the question As people become more
posed for this forum: Have minorities sophisticated about environmental shared equitably in the benefits issues, they are also becoming more resulting from the environmental aware and more critical of the
movement? If the answer lies in the disparities in the benefits of
present state of affairs for minority environmental programs. As a result, communities as to exposure to toxics EPA is now looking at the
in the environment, the answer must environmental equity issue and the be a resounding "NO." impact of environmental programs As most of us are already aware, the from a broad policy perspective. EPA's 1983 General Accounting Office report Office of Civil Rights has a role to play and the 1987 study conducted by the in exploring ways to use the
United Church of Christ strongly crosscutting civil rights statutes to suggest that minorities (blacks and address the inequitable effects of
Hispanics) are disproportionately environmental policies on minority impacted by the siting of hazardous communities and bring about
waste landfills. It does not take an significant change.
extraordinary intellectual effort to
surmise that this pattern may be
indicative of patterns for other
targets for undesirable byproducts of
A review of the history of
It is now time to forge an Agenda for Action. A highly innovative approach for dealing with equity issues has emerged from a number of minority researchers and scholars independently investigating equity issues. They have proposed the development of a National Agenda on Environmental Equity and the establishment of Environmental Equity Regional Centers to deal with research and policy, community assistance, and education. This would represent a positive step toward the development of a "clean" environment for all, with the ultimate goal being Environmental justice. (Dr. Wright is an environmental sociologist with the Sociology Department of Wake Forest University, North Carolina.)