The Environmental Law Society (ELS) stands in solidarity with the Black Law Students Association and their statement in support of Black Lives Matter. We mourn the loss of the numerous men and women who have lost their lives at the hands of a violent system because of the color of their skin; we mourn George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, and so many more.
Environmental issues are intricately linked to issues of racial justice; there cannot be environmental justice without racial justice. Every person has the right to live in a healthy, safe community, and that means not only a community free from pollutants and health hazards, but also where institutionalized racism and law enforcement do not threaten lives.
The environmental movement cannot escape its own racist past. In 1903, Theodore Roosevelt implemented policies to conserve 230 million acres of land but could not have done so without expelling Indigenous people. Early leading environmentalists in Roosevelt’s circle promoted dangerous philosophies of eugenics alongside conservation. Their prejudice infected their approach to environmental protection, as they focused on the parts of wilderness they viewed as “noble” and paid little attention to communities suffering from pollution.
While we acknowledge and condemn the racism that taints the history of the environmental movement, we also praise Black Americans who have been instrumental in the movement. It is important to recognize that many of the successes of the environmental movement have stemmed from the involvement of BIPOC, and many of the failures have stemmed from homogeneity in the decision-making process. As environmental advocates, it is essential to acknowledge that sustainable solutions come from involving everyone in the solution to environmental degradation, especially those who are disproportionately affected by pollution, natural disasters, and climate change.
Many Black leaders have played a key role in expanding environmentalism to include more than conservation. In 1978, Dr. Robert Bullard shaped the environmental movement by testifying as an expert witness about how the city of Houston sited more than eighty percent of its garbage landfills and incinerators in Black communities. Three years later, Walter Fauntroy, Reverend Benjamin Chavis, and Reverend Joseph Lowrey successfully protested the siting of a toxic PCB-filled oil dump in a low-income, Black community in Warren County. These protests helped launch a movement fighting against the concentration of hazardous waste and pollution in communities of color.
In 1991, Dr. Bullard helped organize the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Conference, at which the 17 principles of environmental justice were drafted. These guiding principles, which most major environmental organizations have now adopted, play a key role in the modern environmental movement. ELS stands by these principles and recognizes both the importance of environmental justice and the role of Black leaders in making the environmental movement more comprehensive.
Here are some resources for those interested in learning more about the inextricable link between environmental issues and racial justice:
- The Energy Gang: “Breathing While Black in America”: The Energy Gang is a podcast that focuses primarily on the intersection between energy and climate issues. In this week’s episode, the hosts discussed how POC suffer disproportionately from environmental degradation with Tamara Toles O’Laughlin, a lawyer and organizer.
- Broken Ground: “Dr. Robert Bullard: Environmental Justice is Racial Justice”: Dr. Robert Bullard, widely considered the father of environmental justice, talks about the inequality of pollution and climate change.
- Broken Ground: “Drew Lanham: Call of the Rural South”: Author and wildlife biologist Drew Lanham talks about his book, The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature. Lanham offers powerful insights about what it’s like being black in nature in the South and his experiences birding.
- Majora Carter, “Greening the Ghetto”: Majora Carter redefined the field of environmental equality, starting in the South Bronx at the turn of the century. She is now leading the local economic development movement across the USA. In this TED Talk, she details her fight for environmental justice in the South Bronx — and shows how minority neighborhoods suffer most from flawed public policy.
- Pope Francis’ Encyclical; “Laudato Si: On Care for our Common Home”: Every Pope writes an encyclical on a topic that he finds particularly pressing. Pope Francis chose to write his encyclical on the intersection between climate change and social justice.
- Twenty Lessons in Environmental Sociology by Kenneth A. Gould and Tammy L. Lewis: Environmental sociology is the study of the natural world and how society interacts with it. In this text, twenty environmental sociologists discuss the social and racial justice implications of environmentalism.
- Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, And Environmental Quality by Dr. Robert Bullard: This book discusses the major economic, social, and psychological impacts associated with the siting of noxious facilities and their significance in mobilizing the African American community. It explores the barriers to environmental and social justice experienced by African Americans.
- Toxic Communities: Environmental Racism, Industrial Pollution, and Residential Mobility AND the Rise of the American Conservation Movement: Power, Privilege, and Environmental Protection by Dorceta Taylor: Dorceta Taylor is a professor at the University of Michigan and its Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. She has dedicated her life to studying the intersection of race and environmentalism. In 2020, (AARP) identified Taylor as one of the six people continuing Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy through her work.
- A Terrible Thing to Waste: Environmental Racism and Its Assault on the American Mind by Harriet A. Washington: A troubling and insightful analysis of the damage done to marginalized communities in America from toxic waste exposure, institutional neglect, atmospheric pollution, and infectious disease.
This list is by no means exhaustive, but we hope that it provides a starting point for those who wish to learn more about this issue. Additionally, our organization will release information about this year’s events later this summer, at least some of which will focus on environmental racism and how the environmental movement can, and must, do better going forward.
In closing, the environmental crisis and racial justice are not separate issues. There is no climate justice without racial justice, and our society must do more to defend Black communities from police brutality and systemic, state-sanctioned violence.
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