For many, Earth Day stands as a reminder of everyone’s role as stewards of the planet. It’s a time to reflect and to plan ahead for a cleaner and healthier environment.
For many others, though, it’s also a stark reminder of how African Americans and other minorities are often forgotten when it comes to the protection of their communities.
A March study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) found that whites experience 17 percent less pollution caused by their consumption of goods and services.
On the other hand, Blacks and Hispanics experience 56 percent and 63 percent, respectively, more pollution than their consumption would generate.
Whites experience a “pollution advantage” while Blacks and Hispanics experience a “pollution burden.”
In the District, the Georgetown Voice editorial board made this observation:
“There are stark differences between the Potomac River and the Anacostia River. The first, bordering the south section of our campus, is a source of pride for its community. In the warmer months, its waters are littered with boats of all sizes, its banks occupied by patrons wishing the day away. We, at Georgetown, even refer to our school as its ‘lovely daughter’ when singing our alma mater.”
The board went on to note that the same pride and ownership have not been widely bestowed on the Anacostia River, which at times has been labeled “D.C.’s forgotten river.”
“This inequality is a matter of environmental justice, a concept often given lip service, but not widely understand,” the editors wrote. “The Anacostia River’s current state is the product of unjust systemic conditions within our community.”
Earlier this month, Robert Bullard, former dean of the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University and the founding director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University, noted that the PNAS study builds on a growing body of environmental justice literature showing racial and ethnic disparities in air pollution exposure.
It shows that particulate matter exposure in the U.S. is disproportionately caused by consumption patterns of whites and inhaled by people of color minority, Bullard said.
“Our Environmental Justice movement has been trying to change this and related environmental inequities for the past four decades,” he said.
While the study takes a somewhat different approach in examining disparities in air pollution exposure by examining consumption of goods and services, “its findings once again reveal blacks and Hispanics bear a disproportionate ‘pollution burden’ or costs, while whites experience ‘pollution advantage’ or benefits,” Bullard said.
“There is a clear disparity between the pollution white people cause and the pollution to which they are exposed,” he said.
The study concludes that “pollution inequity is driven by differences among racial-ethnic groups in both exposure and the consumption that leads to the exposure.”
There’s a name for this inequity, Dr. Bullard said. “It’s called environmental racism,” he said, noting a term coined by NNPA President and CEO Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr.
Chavis, who’s also known as the “Godfather of the Environmental Justice Movement,” first coined and defined the term environmental racism in his 1983 work, “Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States.”
Chavis said environmental racism 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 in the environmental movement.
The civil rights leader also noted that 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,” Chavis said.
The underlying message of environmentally racist tactics and strategies is that certain neighborhoods and certain people matter less than others and that geographical vulnerability is inevitable when, in fact, it is socially constructed to be this way, said Deborah J. Cohan, an associate professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina Beaufort.
“The problem with racism and society’s response to it is that we have failed to see this most basic thing: that in order to do that much damage to a community, one must so thoroughly objectify and dehumanize the people in it that they become things that can be discarded and forgotten about,” Cohan said.
“People’s ability to thrive under these hostile conditions is greatly compromised,” she said.
Extensive data show that low-income communities of color still breathe the worst air and have excessive rates of pollution-related illnesses such as asthma and other respiratory problems, said Bruce Mirken, a spokesman for The Greenlining Institute.
“As we move away from oil, coal and gas to fight climate change, we must consciously bring clean energy resources and investment into communities that were for too long used as toxic dumping grounds,” Mirken said in an interview earlier this year.