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Pollution Hurts Some People More Than Others. That’s Been True for Centuries

6 minute read

When communities around the world mark Earth Day on Saturday, the issues that will be highlighted are ones that, by definition, affect everyone on the planet. And yet, over the centuries during which people have inflicted harm on the environment, the very harm that led activists to create Earth Day in the first place, it has not been the case that those problems affected everyone equally.

This fact was recently highlighted by former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) official Mustafa Santiago Ali, who helped found the agency’s Office of Environmental Justice under President George H.W. Bush and in March resigned in protest of the EPA budget cuts called for in the Trump Administration’s recent budget proposal. “Communities of color, low-income communities, and indigenous populations are still struggling to receive equal protection under the law. These communities both urban and rural,” Ali stated in his letter to EPA head Scott Pruitt, “often live in areas with toxic levels of air pollution, crumbling or non-existent water and sewer infrastructure, lead in their drinking water, brownfields from vacant and former industrial and commercial sites, Superfund and other hazardous waste sites,” and exposure to a host of other pollutants. Ali believed the deep budget cuts will put vulnerable communities at greater risk.

The disproportionate impact of pollution on the vulnerable is certainly not new. Concerns regarding a lack of adequate sanitation to combat pollution date back to the mid-19th century, yet it wasn’t until the late 20th century that environmental protection emerged as a nationwide grassroots effort to address what activists have identified as environmental racism.

According to Carl A. Zimring in his book Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States, this phenomenon — defined by former NAACP President Benjamin Chavis in 1992 as, “the deliberate targeting of people of color communities for toxic waste facilities, the official sanctioning of the life threatening presence of poisons and pollutants in our communities” — was part and parcel to the construction of race during the post-Civil War era.

In the late 19th century, some subscribed to notions of hygiene that claimed, as Zimring puts it, that “whites were cleaner than non-whites.” Industrialization and migration to urban centers during the period led to overcrowding in northern cities, suffocating pollution and widespread epidemics. Nativists, particularly among the elite class, blamed the problem on the moral depravity of southern and eastern European immigrants, who were considered “less than white.” Yet, some politicians and civic leaders disagreed and focused on developing a sufficient sanitation infrastructure to address waste management, a public health campaign underscored by notions of hygiene to combat disease, and the creation of jobs in sanitation to lower unemployment.

As Zimring notes, the U. S. census shows that between 1870 and 1930 street sanitation work, also known as “dirty work,” was performed primarily by first- and second-generation eastern and southern European immigrants and blacks. Some of these foreign-born individuals, categorized during the early decades of the 20th century as white ethnics (to distinguish them from the native-born Anglo Saxon Protestants), went into the waste-management business while others obtained “cleaner occupations” and left sanitation altogether. With white ethnic categories eliminated from the census after WWII and assistance from the 1944 GI Bill, those occupying the margins of whiteness were granted full integration into white American society, fleeing “dirty jobs and dirty cities” for the clean and white life of suburban America.

In a world of de jure and de facto segregation, this situation meant that blacks, Hispanics and American Indian communities were left to bear much of the environmental burden of the 20th century. As one Chicago lawyer put it, according to Zimring, “Gentlemen, in every great city there must be a part of that city segregated for unpleasant things.” Segregated employment also justified relegating non-white workers to performing the most hazardous jobs in the worst unsanitary conditions, an issue that became central to the civils rights movement during the latter years of the 1960s.

The 1968 Memphis sanitation strike is a case in point. The Public Works Department employed 1,300 sanitation workers, most of whom were black. These workers were subjected to long hours, low wages, and exposure to extreme hazardous conditions, resulting in health deterioration and sometimes injury or death. In fact, the strike was launched when two men were killed on the job in early February of that year. The strike gained national attention when Martin Luther King Jr. and local civic leaders organized the Poor People’s March, which was led by Coretta Scott King on April 8, four days after her husband’s assassination.

The Memphis strike integrated issues of economic and environmental justice into the movement for civil rights. That relationship has underscored the Environmental Justice Movement (EJM) for the past three decades.

According to Dorceta E. Taylor in her book Toxic Communities: Environmental Racism, Industrial Politics and Residential Mobility, during the 1960s and 1970s “minority activists became more deliberate in their environmental activism,” linking the “environment with racial and other kinds of social inequalities” and demanding the right “to safe and healthy environments.” In the decades that followed, high-profile cases helped expand the EJM movement, as citizens saw how predominately black areas — like the rural towns of Triana, Ala., and Warren County, N.C., and the urban areas of northern New Jersey and southern Louisiana, which were dubbed “Cancer Alley” by the Washington Post in 1978 and 1987 respectively — were often the places that had their lands and waterways contaminated by the manufacturing of insecticides, the dumping the PCB-laced fluids in landfills and the operation of petrochemical factories.

A 1987 report by the Commission for Racial Justice titled, Toxic Waste and Race in the United States, found that while, “socio-economic status appeared to play an important role in the location of commercial hazardous waste facilities, race still proved to be more significant.” For example, the facilities that “accounted for 40% of the total estimated landfill capacity in the United States,” were located in three black and Hispanic communities in Alabama, Louisiana and California, which had an average minority population of 85%. A follow up report published in 2007 confirmed that this trend remained unchanged during this 20-year period.

For certain, the protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock and the water crisis in Flint, Mich., demonstrate that the fight for liberty and environmental justice for all remains a formidable one. Yet, despite the odds, let us on this Earth Day hold fast to our resolve to protect our planet against the exploitation that endangers us all.

Historians explain how the past informs the present

Arica L. Coleman is the author of That the Blood Stay Pure: African Americans, Native Americans and the Predicament of Race and Identity in Virginia and chair of the Committee on the Status of African American, Latino/a, Asian American, and Native American (ALANA) Historians and ALANA Histories at the Organization of American Historians.

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