Mostly White environmental groups downplay Black issues

Rebecca Cook / Reuters Protesters march over contaminated water crisis in Flint, Michigan.

News Analysis

As environmental justice battles rage around the country, thousands of African American children and adults are being left out of the conversation. Access to clean drinking water, lead paint abatement programs, and affordable energy bills are vital to the health and financial well-being of communities — especially low-income families of color. Yet the disparities continue to rise — in Minnesota and beyond.

According to the U.S. Institute of Health, cockroach allergens are detected in 85 percent of inner-city homes, and 60 to 80 percent “of inner-city children with asthma are sensitized to cockroaches based on the skin prick testing.”

While Minnesota overall has good air quality, Twin Cities air pollution kills nearly 2,000 people a year. “Children in the Twin Cities metro area go to the ER for asthma at a rate nearly twice that of children in Greater Minnesota,” according to the 2019 Environment and Energy Report Card by the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board (EQB).

 “In some Minneapolis zip codes, asthma hospitalization rates for children are four times higher than the rest of the state,” reads the EQB report. “Poorer air quality in the metro area could be a contributing factor, and efforts to reduce air pollution are a critical part of addressing the disparities.”

A Center for American Progress report found that water contamination disparately “plagues low-income areas and communities of color across the nation.” Studies havedocumented limited access to clean water in low-income communities of color.”

The EQB report card ranks the unhealthy nitrate level in Minnesota’s groundwater as consistently “poor,” largely because “removing nitrate from tap water is expensive.

The National Institute of Health reports “use of nitrate-contaminated drinking water to prepare infant formula is a well-known risk factor for infant methemoglobinemia,” a condition known as “blue baby syndrome” that could lead to coma or death.


We see firsthand how this crisis in clean water creates a variety of healthcare problems for Black patients and their families.

In addition, 11.2 percent of African American children who live in urban areas are at risk for lead poisoning caused by lead-based paint, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Such disparities are only heightened by elite environmental organizations that are overwhelmingly managed by White leaders who appear to be turning away from the conversations. A recent study by Green 2.0, an initiative dedicated to increasing racial diversity across mainstream environmental non-governmental organizations, found that the movement is only “getting more White” as it continues to leave out people of color.

The report indicated that nearly 70 percent of the Environmental Defense Fund’s (EDF) staff was White. It also concluded that “the top 40 environmental foundations have gotten more White across full-time staff, senior staff, and board members.”

While some of these environmental groups in the area have used their presence to fight issues that impact everyone, other organizations are instead focusing on anti-pipeline and anti-energy activism in the state.

Among the best examples is an issue playing out locally, where national environmental groups — including Greenpeace, 350.org and the Natural Resources Defense Council — are waging a major battle described as “resistance against the oil pipelines.” They also are running major fundraising campaigns off of pipeline protests — even though the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration notes that pipelines are “one of the safest and least costly ways to transport energy products.”

The singular focus on one environmental issue while appearing to ignore others implies the presence of environmental racism, a long-used description of the practice of allowing toxins to exist in communities of color. Some believe that these skewed priorities may be happening, in part, because of the lack of diversity in the environmental movement.

Green 2.0 is pressing to deal with the racial inclusion issue in order to infuse greater sensitivity into the environmental justice movement.

 “Communities of color bring to bear experience and perspective on both problems and pathways to power building. As an organization, we plan to take a more aggressive approach to calling out the environmental movement for their lack of diversity,” said Whitney Tome, executive director of Green 2.0, in a statement.

 “For the past five years,” Tome continued, “we’ve been working to ensure that the environmental movement and its leaders reflect the current U.S. workforce demographics.”

Meanwhile, African American-led organizations are pushing environmental justice agendas, underscoring the importance of such issues in communities of color.

“Clean water is a basic human right,” National Medical Association President Niva Lubin-Johnson wrote in a commentary posted on Seattlemedium.com last fall. “At the National Medical Association (NMA), we see firsthand how this crisis in clean water creates a variety of healthcare problems for Black patients and their families.”

Instead of seeking ways to make energy more elusive and expensive for communities of color, activist groups could use their initiative to aid in the abating of these most fundamental challenges that continue to push headwinds against many Black families and other families of color.

“This is just the beginning,” said Tome. “Environmental groups are now on notice.”

Hazel Trice Edney is editor-in-chief of the Trice Edney News Wire and president and CEO of Trice Edney Communications.

2 Comments on “Mostly White environmental groups downplay Black issues”

  1. Critical article (that I’m sharing with every white environmentalist I know). I’d only add one point of clarification. The people FIGHT8ING OIL PIPELINES are NOT ONLY WHITE people. Indigenous/Native American/American Indians are ALSO FIGHTING on the FRONTLINES against these pipelines which CROSS THEIR LANDS and ENDANGER THEIR WATER. In northern Minnesota the WILD RICE which Native peoples DEPEND ON are at risk from the pipelines. This is also an issue of CLIMATE CHANGE. Instead of an “either/or” stance, we must make ALL these issues BOTH./AND.

    1. Touche to Lydia’s comment. Before I dig in, let me say that I am an an Environmental Activist, and Black Woman who Lives in North Minneapolis.

      My Native Peoples in Minneapolis and all over MN are fighting on the front lines everyday more than any other groups I know of against the Pipeline.

      I agree that we need to focus on issues that overwhelmingly affect Black Communities, which many black led groups, (that I can name) ARE already focusing on currently. You mentioned this when you wrote: “African American-led organizations are pushing environmental justice agendas, underscoring the importance of such issues in communities of color.”

      I also agree that this is a: “People’s issue.” Most movements are organized by familial and like-minded groups of individuals and sometimes it is difficult for some to feel comfortable joining an “already-set-and-seated table.” I think what really needs to happen, is for organizations to sit people down and guide them through the process of starting their own organization, seeking out funding, and applying for grants. We do not have time to fight within the Environmental Movement since we are all earthlings and there is only so much time left before we are all dead.

      Also, I find it off-putting when you wrote that: “the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration notes that pipelines are “one of the safest and least costly ways to transport energy products.”

      EEEEEEK- Of Course they their going to say that! They are the Department that Administers Transportation and Hazardous Materials! In 2006, The current Deputy Administrator of this department, Drue Pierce, coordinated the efforts to advance Natural Gas aka “fracking” to North American Markets. As for their Executive Director Howard “Mac” McMillan; try googling him and see if you find anything about him or if you find any pictures of him besides the ONE picture on their website which states that prior to becoming the Executive Director of the US DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION’S PIPELINE AND HAZARDOUS MATERIALS ADMINISTRATION, he served as Chief of the Verification Division, Immigration Records and Identify Services Directorate, executive with the Internal Revenue Service, a former county administrator and has also worked in the private sector (PRIVATE SECTOR HMMMM).

      I would like to know if someone, possibly Enbridge, had something to do with this article since an article dropped yesterday stating that a group that is for Pipeline 3 aka “Pro Line 3” just dropped $247k on Face Book Ads. Hmmmmm

      This article alone is holding back the Black Community by creating reservations in the minds of the black community through a Black News Medium, about whether they should join the movement at all.

      Thanks but no thanks Hazel. I will not fall for this and will continue to focus my energy on saving our planet and I invite anyone, now matter what differences we may have to join me.

Comments are closed.