The modern environmental movement has its roots in social and political ideologies that stretch all the way back to the early 19th century, including the Romantic Movement, the conservation movement, and the early environmental protection societies. Though similar ideas, strategies and conservationist programs continued into the early part of the 20th century, particularly in Europe, it was not until the post-World War II era that environmentalism in America truly began to gain steam.
In 1970, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was founded and the inaugural Earth Day was celebrated. Shortly thereafter, organizations such as Greenpeace and the decidedly radical Earth First were spawned. It was also in the 1970s that the United States Department of Energy developed its weatherization assistance program.
Through this program, Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties and other Community Action agencies provide critical weatherization services to low-income homes. Not only do such services help those in poverty save money, but they also conserve energy and reduce the carbon footprint of each home.
In spite of the rather definitive impact the environmental movement has had in America and throughout the world, the issue of environmentalism remains rather divisive and is particularly polarizing when considering the debate over climate change. Unfortunately in the midst of all this discourse over environmentalism and its influence in our world, a related environmental topic gets short shrift and is frequently consigned to the margins of the discussion.
The particular topic that I am referring to is the topic of environmental justice, where the lack of said justice is clearly drawn along racial and class lines. The EPA defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”
The EPA cites this definition of environmental justice as its goal “for all communities and persons” in America, yet readily acknowledges that this goal is far away from being achieved. Although environmental justice might be the goal, environmental racism is the reality.
As such, the poor and communities of color across the nation are disproportionately subject to environmental hazards that other communities are generally protected from. In American cities, neighborhoods with high concentrations of racial and ethnic minorities are much more likely to live near toxic landfills, hazardous waste facilities, abandoned and decaying buildings, and environmental pollutants such as asbestos and other dangerous chemicals.
In fact, a 2014 study published by the University of Minnesota revealed than Americans of color are approximately 50 percent more likely than White Americans to breathe in toxic compounds such as nitrogen dioxide.
Each and every day in the United States, environmental racism is occurring in both subtle and unmistakable ways. There are numerous documented cases of large-scale environmental racism, with one of the most famous cases occurring in Chicago.
Sixty years ago, the Altgeld Gardens housing community was built on an abandoned landfill on the far South Side of Chicago. Originally built for African American veterans of World War II, Altgeld Gardens is surrounded by several landfills, industrial plants, abandoned steel mills, and dozens of toxic waste facilities including a chemical waste incinerator.
Some of the pollutants and toxic chemicals that affect the residents of Altgeld Gardens are mercury, xylene, lead, ammonia, and dangerous biphenyls and hydrocarbons. The water quality in this community has been called “unfit for human consumption and recreation,” and the residents have been shown to suffer from alarmingly high rates of several types of cancer, including pediatric brain cancer.
Higher than normal rates of asthma, fungal infections, and other serious illnesses are pervasive in Altgeld Gardens. Today, more than 3,000 people still reside in Altgeld Gardens, the overwhelming majority of whom are African Americans.
Of course, one doesn’t have to travel to Chicago to find examples of environmental racism. Here in the Twin Cities, organizations such as Environmental Justice Advocates for Minnesota (EJAM), the Sierra Club’s North Star Chapter, and the Center for Earth Energy and Democracy are working with local communities to fight the scourge of environmental racism.
Yet there is much work to be done, as is demonstrated by the Center for Earth Energy and Democracy’s “Twin Cities Environmental Justice Mapping Tool.” This interactive tool is designed to illustrate levels of exposure to environmental hazards in the Twin Cities based on race and class.
The mapping tool demonstrates that local landfills, leak sites, petroleum-contaminated areas, industrial plants, and other hazardous waste sites are located near neighborhoods with significant populations of color.
While there are many individuals and organizations in the fight against environmental racism, this issue still does not get the attention that it needs. Perhaps we must all ask ourselves the one question that others in the environmental movement have begun to pose: “Is my neighborhood killing me?”
Clarence Hightower is executive director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street, St. Paul, MN 55104.