Ecology -- Books
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Issue Date:  June 16, 2006

Edited by Robert D. Bullard
Sierra Club Books, 413 pages, $18.95
By Michael Eric Dyson
Perseus Books Group, 258 pages, $23
Books document environmental racism


Amid the white noise of statistics that buttress debates over the human toll on the environment, rarely do we hear statistics like this: If you are a black American you are 79 percent more likely than a white American to live in a neighborhood where industrial pollution is suspected of posing a grave health danger.

That’s according to an independent analysis conducted by The Associated Press with the assistance of government scientists and released in December, examining what it called “a little-known government research project” originating in the bureaucratic labyrinth of the Environmental Protection Agency.

And it is not just black Americans who are affected. “All told,” AP reported, “there are 12 states where Hispanics are more than twice as likely as non-Hispanics to live in neighborhoods with the highest risk scores. There are seven states where Asians are more than twice as likely as whites to live in the most polluted areas.”

Poverty, of course, is a factor as well: “Residents of the neighborhoods with the highest pollution scores,” AP noted, “also tended to be poorer, less educated and often unemployed than those elsewhere in the country.”

These findings shouldn’t surprise anybody who lives or has lived in a poor neighborhood in the United States populated predominantly by people of color, or anyone who has merely driven through such a neighborhood and passed by the smokestacks, factories and house-sized chemical drums that often serve as unofficial neighborhood markers.

Still, the news -- to the extent that it was news -- is deeply troubling, and made more so by the long string of such reports stretching back at least to the 1970s.

The often unknown but by no means uncharted history of environmental racism in America is recorded with relentless detail in Robert Bullard’s new book, The Quest for Environmental Justice.

Relentless detail, of course, means statistics. In one of many case studies, focusing on Claiborne Parish in rural Louisiana -- environmental racism, after all, is not only an urban problem -- Bullard focuses on the “siting” process (begun in 1987 and not resolved until 1998) for the nation’s first privately owned uranium enrichment plant, to be owned and operated by Louisiana Energy Services (LES). Oversight of the process was the responsibility of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Bullard highlights “a clear racial pattern” in the nationwide, multistage site screening and selection process with a chilling statistical deduction.

“African-Americans constitute about 13 percent of the U.S. population, 20 percent of the southern states’ population, 31 percent of Louisiana’s population, 35 percent of Louisiana’s northern parishes (parishes are equivalent to counties), and 46 percent of Claiborne parish. This progressive trend, involving the narrowing of the site selection process to areas of increasingly high poverty and African-American representation, is also evident in an evaluation of the actual sites considered in the intermediate and fine screening stages of the site selection process. The aggregate average percentage of blacks in the population within a one-mile radius of the 78 sites examined (in 16 parishes) is 28.35 percent. When LES completed its initial site cuts and reduced the list to 37 sites within nine parishes, the aggregate percentage of blacks in the population rose to 36.7 percent. When LES then further limited its focus to six sites in Claiborne Parish, the aggregate average percentage of blacks in the population rose again, to 64.74 percent. The final site selected, the Le Sage site, has a 97.10 percentage of blacks in the population within a one-mile radius.”

Bullard’s book is full of this kind of thing. But its focus is really on resistance. Ultimately, residents from the communities who would face the health risks of such a plant in such close proximity organized a group called Citizens Against Nuclear Trash and sued Louisiana Energy Services and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for environmental racism -- they won. The victory was one of many for what Bullard claims is a growing environmental justice movement.

It’s a rights issue

“Environmental justice is a civil rights and a human rights issue,” Bullard writes. “Why do some communities get dumped on while others don’t? Why are environmental regulations vigorously enforced in some communities and not in other communities? Why are some workers protected from environmental and health threats while other workers (such as migrant farm workers) suffer poisoning? How can environmental justice be incorporated into environmental protection?”

The environmental protection movement, or the more mainstream environmental movement, anchored by big-budget organizations like the Sierra Club (which published Bullard’s book), the National Wildlife Federation and others, can best be distinguished from the environmental justice movement not just by their actions -- the mainstream movement is more likely to be engaged in a struggle to save a bay or a bird on the verge of extinction -- but by appearances. The grass-roots environmental justice movement is not known for its glossy calendars and coffee-table books or its wealthy and white leadership. It is distinguished by its fundamental matter: small community groups led by people of color -- often women of color -- and working on shoestring budgets as they take on power companies, waste disposal companies, factories and even the federal government.

-- Photographer Showcase/Jim West

In 2004, residents of the largely-immigrant community of Hamtramck, Mich., and African-Americans from nearby Detroit protest a plan by Michigan Waste Services to burn medical and low-level radioactive waste in its incinerator.

Bullard provides a timeline of the movement, anchored by two key events: The first and second National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summits. The first, held in 1991 in Washington, saw attendance by 650 grass-roots and national leaders. For the second summit, held in 2002, organizers expected 500 participants. More than 14,000 showed up.

The environmental justice movement has not been at the cusp of any major legislation, but it counts among its successes the creation in 1994 of the Office of Environmental Equity within the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council established to advise the EPA. Bullard highlights the legal backbone of the movement: Presidential Order 12898, signed by Bill Clinton in 1996. The executive order, “Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations,” directs all federal agencies that deal with public health and the environment to develop strategies to identify and address the discriminatory effects of their programs, policies and activities -- building on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which forbids government-funded programs and projects from discriminating based on race, color and national origin, and the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, which requires the assessment of environmental impacts before allowing major projects to move forward.

It was Presidential Order 12898 that Citizens Against Nuclear Trash successfully evoked in its lawsuit against Louisiana Energy Services and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “In their 38-page written decision,” Bullard writes, “the judges chastised the Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff for not addressing the executive order’s provisions.”

While the term “environmental justice” is enshrined in a presidential order and within the construction of the EPA, it is not, a household name, as Bullard says in his book. But with the national attention given the tragic confluence of race, class and the environment during and after the chaos of Hurricane Katrina, it is now at least a familiar concept.

The drama of Hurricane Katrina reversed the typical formula of environmental injustice. In this instance, the principalities of power were not bringing the disaster to the poor; but were failing utterly to deliver the poor from the disaster.

Tragic confluence

Michael Eric Dyson’s latest book, Come Hell or High Water: Katrina and the Color of Disaster, examines arguments common to the editorial pages and overheard discussions in every American city: Does the Bush administration care about black people? Did an overstretched National Guard, with much of its valuable resources fighting wars overseas, contribute to the disaster? Dyson’s contribution to the debate about Katrina -- and indirectly to an understanding of the responsibilities we all must shoulder in the face of entrenched environmental injustice and racism -- is a chapter late in the book titled: “Supernatural Disasters: Theodicy and Prophetic Faith?”

“If earthquakes have aftershocks,” Dyson writes, “then hurricanes have reverberations that shake the moral foundations of the geographies they destroy. In the wake of Katrina, a number of figures spoke about the meaning of the storm. Some argued that it was God’s will, while others explored the question of human and natural responsibility for the catastrophe. It is clear that we must come to grips with the suffering Katrina unleashed. The faithful must also provide a thoughtful response to those who purport to discern God’s vengeance, and to those who just as easily seek to avoid the unsettling question of God’s role in suffering.”

What follows is a catalog of vicious and absurd statements, best summed up by David Crowe, a conservative minister and executive director of Restore America: “We’ve known for decades and longer that New Orleans has been a place where immorality is flaunted and Christian values are laughed at. It is the epitome of a place where they mock God.”

Dyson’s response: “Too often, crude cultural bias infects the bitter statements of religious zealots who use God to sanction their beliefs. This is especially visible in Christian communities that are teetotalers on drink, yet drunk on arrogant analyses of divine punishment rooted in their confidence in knowing what gets God’s goat -- or, worse still, in knowing who God’s sacrificial scapegoat is. In the case of Katrina, such views drip with hubris and hate. To suggest that God chose to use the storm is presumptuous, and anachronistic, enough; but to posit its rage as person- and issue-specific -- to rid New Orleans of gays, practitioners of voodoo and abortion, and poor blacks -- is contemptuous of the precious human life God cherishes, not to mention homophobic and racist.”

Addressing God’s vengeance

As an antidote to the hubris of Crowe and other conservatives who saw the punitive hand of God at work in New Orleans, Dyson offers up the words of Peter Steinfels, who in an essay about Katrina and its aftermath, addressed the theology of God’s vengeance and the also prominent desperate plea for understanding: How could a God who cherishes “precious human life” allow the tragedy of Katrina?

“For believers,” Steinfels wrote, “humanity, with all its faults and contrivances, is no less God’s creation than hurricanes and ocean surges and the law that water seeks its own level.

“So one might logically step back from asking how God could allow the brimming, turbulent Lake Pontchartrain to break the levees to asking how God could allow self-interested or shortsighted politicians to put off reinforcing the levees or allow enterprising engineers and developers to decrease the capacity of the environment to buffer storms. How could God allow the negligence, racism, indifference or hardheartedness that long gnawed at the social fabric of New Orleans -- or the blindness or incompetence of officials who should have understood the brewing human storm, as well the meteorological one? That such questions about divine providence have been so little pressed in this way testifies to a tremendous modern -- and American -- belief in human freedom and responsibility. On the Gulf Coast, humans fell short, not God; humans and human institutions should be called to account, not God.”

The environmental justice movement responded immediately with countless organizing efforts in and around the Gulf Coast, collecting water, clothes and books and setting up mobile health clinics. Katrina has proven an opportunity for the movement to demonstrate how far it has come, even as the distance left to travel has become achingly apparent.

“In 1979,” Bullard writes, “Bean v. Southwestern Waste Management Corp. became the first lawsuit to challenge environmental racism using civil rights law. Now, after more than two and a half decades of intense study, targeted research, public hearings, grass-roots organizing, network building, and leadership summits, the struggle for environmental justice has taken center stage. Environmental racism is out of the closet. All communities are not created equal. Some neighborhoods, communities and regions have become the dumping grounds for household garbage, hazardous wastes and other sources of toxins. From West Dallas to West Harlem, and from the South Side of Chicago to South Central Los Angeles, people of color are demanding, and in some cases winning, solutions to their environmental dilemmas.”

Peggy Shepard, who heads West Harlem Environmental Action, writes in the preface to Bullard’s book: “With the re-election of President George W. Bush, there have been calls for reassessing mainstream environmentalism, a movement that pioneered environmental regulation in the 1970s, but that finds itself sorely challenged to provide transformational leadership in the 21st century. The effectiveness and moral authority of the environmental justice movement have infused a gritty new spirit into a new model of environmentalism. This model redefines the environmental protection and conservation paradigm, transforming it into one that is accountable to its grass-roots base, replicable, multiethnic, multiracial and multidisciplinary.”

Dyson affirms and cements this call for the accountability that reaches beyond the polluters and politicians to the movements that seek to reform them: “Whether we like it or not,” he reminds us, “human behavior affects in demonstrable measure which way the winds blow.”

Jeff Severns Guntzel is an NCR staff writer. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, June 16, 2006

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