Racial Injustice: Why We Need to Act Now

NRDC’s Dawone Robinson discusses how social, political, and economic inequities lead to environmental injustice.

This is a transcript of the video.

I grew up in a small town in Iowa called Waterloo. I was adopted by my grandparents. They were born and raised on the east side of Waterloo. My grandparents wanted to purchase a new home on the west side of Waterloo. They were told no, because they were black. And indeed, even by the late 1960s, 95 percent of black residents in Waterloo lived on the east side.

We have heard that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. After more than 80 years in housing, we have not yet reached the turning point of that arc.

When you have communities intentionally divided by race. When black and brown families live in poor and substandard homes. When the school systems in black and brown communities are underfunded and run down. When the land in these communities are undervalued. When your built environment treats you as less than. It is inevitable that companies and government move to locate dirty power facilities, toxic waste sites, and dangerous infrastructure projects to these areas.

Because powerful entities have less regard for the lives of black people, for the lives of brown people, for the lives of poor people, and for the lives of those who are less educated, because these people lack political power, and the majority in society have been treating minorities in society as less than for generations without much consequence, so why stop now?

There are studies by the NAACP and others that cite that around two-thirds of black people in America live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant. Notably higher than white populations. EPA estimates that at least 1.5 million minorities live dangerously close to coal ash surface impoundments.

According to analysis conducted by the EPA and HUD, 70 percent of the country's contaminated waste sites, or Superfund sites, are located near low-income housing. Seventy percent.

This is environmental racism.

These are deliberate acts. Either intentionally targeting or—equally problematic—disproportionately impacting communities based on race. That's racism.

I'm sorry if hearing the word "racism" makes you uncomfortable. But imagine being on the receiving end of it.

We must demand better than this. We cannot begin to resolve the inequities in our environment at large, if we do not tackle the underlying racial disparities that exist in our communities, in housing, in employment, and within our political structures.

There is an old saying which reads that "the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." Let's continue our work to clean up our environment with that renewed focus on communities who need it most.


Speech filmed at the 30th Annual Environment Virginia Symposium at the Virginia Military Institute Center for Leadership and Ethics in March 2019

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