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Environmental Racism and the Environmental Justice Movement

Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., entrepreneur, global business leader, educator, veteran civil rights leader, NAACP Life Member, award-winning syndicated columnist and author is currently the president and CEO of the National Newspaper Publishers Association. Chavis was the first to define and coin the term “Environmental Racism” in 1983, later co-authoring the landmark national study “Toxic Waste and Race in the United States” published by the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice in 1987. In addition, he’s viewed as one of the definitive founders of the Environmental Justice Movement.

In light of the approaching annual Earth Day observance and the ongoing environmental injustices faced by people of color communities like Flint, New Orleans and Detroit, Chavis, the “Godfather of the Environmental Justice Movement,” sat down with The Washington Informer to share his insights on both the victories and challenges facing the movement today.

What does environmental racism and environmental justice mean?

I first coined and defined the term environmental racism in my 1983 work, “Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States.” Environmental racism [ER] is racial discrimination in the deliberate targeting of communities of color for toxic waste facilities, the official sanctioning of the presence of life threatening poisons and pollutants near communities of color and the history of excluding people of color from leadership of the environmental movement.”

There are different forms of racism, yet environmental racism is a particularly insidious and intentional form of racism that negatively affects millions of Black, Native Americans, Hispanics and Asian Americans, as well as people of color around the world.

Environmental justice is the corrective antidote to the reality and prevalence of environmental racism and the movement continues to grow and expand throughout the world. The movement that emerged in North Carolina, Texas, New Mexico and California in the late 70s and 80s has now grown into an organized global justice movement with community activists, scholars, public-policy makers, government and United Nations officials.

Why did you originally get involved in environmental justice?

My long-term involvement in the civil rights movement in the U.S. and in the African Liberation Movement in Africa and the Caribbean for over five decades led me to initially become involved in the Environmental Justice Movement.

As a protester in 1983 in Warren County, NC, I was arrested and unjustly jailed for protesting what I then defined as a glaring case of environmental racism. Given my background in chemistry, I knew that the PCBs (Polychlorinated Biphenyls) were in fact dangerous, cancer-causing, chemical agents. In Warren County, these chemicals were being buried in the Warren County landfill where they’d eventually leak into the well water that African-American communities were using. All forms of racism need to be challenged and my responsibility as a freedom fighter propelled me to help lead mass protests to expose and to challenge environmental racism and eventually establish the Environmental Justice Movement.

Where and who are most affected by environmental injustice?

People of color communities are disproportionately exposed and affected in the U.S. by environmental injustice and racism. This leads to high levels of severe, and at times fatal, public health crises in those communities. My report detailed the existence of environmental injustice in people of color communities as a national problem.

Who did you work alongside with in this movement?

I worked with many talented activists and community organizers during the 80s and 90s, especially Charles Lee, Damu Smith, the Rev. Leon White, Hazel Johnson and Dolly Burwell in the initial stages. Damu Smith was one of the first African Americans to work as a Greenpeace executive staff organizer. Charles Lee was my co-editor of the report “Toxic Waste and Race in the U.S.” and later became the director of the Office for Environmental Justice in the Environmental Protection Agency. They were all close colleagues and fellow freedom fighters.  Later, an outspoken Illinois State Senator, Barack Obama, joined us and became an advocate of the Environmental Justice Movement focusing on Chicago and other nearby cities.

How has the movement evolved since your involvement?

The Environmental Justice Movement continues to grow and expand throughout the world.  The United Nations in particular has adopted many of the issues and principles of the movement. There are two important milestones that should be noted in the evolution of the EJ Movement:

– In the 1980s, I worked for the United Church of Christ (UCC) Commission for Racial Justice, in their national office located in New York City. In 1987, as executive director and CEO of the UCC Commission for Racial Justice, we funded, wrote and published the landmark national statistical study, “Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States of America.” This unprecedented national study statistically proved the direct correlation between the location of toxic wastes landfills, facilities and other hazardous wastes areas with the location of residences of African Americans and other people of color throughout the U.S. based on U.S. Census and U.S Environmental Protection Agency data.

– In October 1991, the UCC Commission for Racial Justice and numerous other people of color national organizations convened the First National People of Color Summit on Environmental Justice in Washington, D.C.  which drafted and adopted the Principles of Environmental Justice.

On Earth Day 2017, we must all stand together in unbridled solidarity to demand environmental justice and equality for all people in all nations. What happened in Flint, Michigan is not an isolated incident. It is symptomatic of a much broader problem that needs urgent attention. Grassroots and community organizing can still make a big difference in helping communities achieve a better quality of life.

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