The Environmental Justice Movement
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The Facts of Environmental Racism
To civil rights activists looking on as the events in Warren County played out, the actions of the North Carolina state government in forcing a toxic landfill onto a small African-American community were an extension of the racism they had encountered for decades in housing, education and employment. But this time, it was environmental racism.
The Afton protests energized a new faction within the civil rights movement that saw the environment as another front in the struggle for justice. Many early environmental justice leaders came out of the civil rights movement. They brought to the environmental movement the same tactics they had used in civil rights struggles -- marches, petitions, rallies, coalition building, community empowerment through education, litigation and nonviolent direct action. Many veterans of the civil rights movement -- often affiliated with black churches -- showed up in Afton, helping to attract national media attention. Among them were Reverend Ben Chavis and Reverend Joseph Lowery, then of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and Reverend Leon White of the United Church of Christ's Commission for Racial Justice.
In the wake of the Afton protests, environmental justice activists looked around the nation and saw a pattern: Pollution-producing facilities are often sited in poor communities of color. No one wants a factory, a landfill or a diesel bus garage for a neighbor. But corporate decision makers, regulatory agencies and local planning and zoning boards had learned that it was easier to site such facilities in low-income African-American or Latino communities than in primarily white, middle-to-upper-income communities. Poor communities and communities of color usually lacked connections to decision makers on zoning boards or city councils that could protect their interests. Often they could not afford to hire the technical and legal expertise they'd need to fight a siting. They often lacked access to information about how their new "neighbor's" pollution would affect people's health. And in the case of Latino communities, important information in English-only documents was out of reach for affected residents who spoke only Spanish.
Several studies published in the 1980s and early 1990s gave charges of environmental racism new credibility. Walter Fauntroy, District of Columbia Congressional Delegate and then-chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, took part in the Afton protests. When Fauntroy returned to Washington, he tasked Congress's General Accounting Office with determining whether communities of color suffered disproportionate negative impacts from the siting and construction of hazardous waste landfills within them. The GAO study was published in 1983, and revealed that three-quarters of the hazardous waste landfill sites in eight southeastern states were located in primarily poor, African-American and Latino communities.
More evidence of environmental racism came through the efforts of the United Church of Christ's Commission for Racial Justice (CRJ), under the leadership of Reverend Benjamin Chavis, who had also stood with the protesters at Afton. With Chavis serving as its director, the CRJ published Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States, a 1987 report that became an indispensable tool in galvanizing support for environmental justice action. The report, by the UCC's Director of Research Charles Lee, showed that race was the single most important factor in determining where toxic waste facilities were sited in the United States. It also found that due to the strong statistical correlation between race and the location of hazardous wastes sites, the siting of these facilities in communities of color was no accident, but rather the intentional result of local, state and federal land-use policies. And in 1990, sociologist Robert Bullard's Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality reviewed the environmental justice struggles of several African-American communities; the stories underscored the importance of race as a factor in the siting of unwanted toxics-producing facilities.
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