Updated: Jul 23
We here at EPIC would like to wish all of our members a happy Black History Month. The past year has been an incredibly difficult time for all of us, but has been especially challenging for Black communities. The police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and countless other Black Americans sparked the largest protests against police brutality in American history. Despite this, calls for substantive police reform have gone largely unanswered. At the same time, in terms of both health and economic impacts, the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately targeted Black Americans. While there are many reasons for this disparity, we would like to take this opportunity to talk about one in particular: Environmental Racism.
When he first used the term in 1982, Benjamin Chavis defined Environmental Racism as “racial discrimination in environmental policy making, the enforcement of regulations and laws, the deliberate targeting of communities of color for toxic waste facilities, the official sanctioning of the life-threatening presence of poisons and pollutants in our communities, and the history of excluding people of color from leadership of the ecology movements.” Almost 40 years later, environmental racism continues to affect Black communities. Today, Black Americans are still considerably more likely to live in neighborhoods that are exposed to heightened levels of air and lead pollution. In fact, race is the single biggest factor that determines whether a person lives near a hazardous waste facility. And decades of research have confirmed that the reasons for this are exactly the reasons Chavis outlined. Environmental laws and regulations do not protect Black and Brown communities to the same extent they protect White ones. And because exposure to pollution is highly correlated with COVID-19 mortality, environmental racism has effectively supercharged the COVID-19 pandemic for Black communities.
To help combat environmental racism, EPIC encourages all of its members to be Intersectional Environmentalists. Leah Thomas, who coined the term ‘Intersectional Environmentalism,’ defines it as “a more inclusive version of environmentalism that identifies the ways in which injustices happening to marginalized communities and the earth are interconnected.” Intersectional environmentalism “brings injustices done to the most vulnerable communities, and the earth, to the forefront and does not minimize or silence social inequality.” It’s hypocritical to preach the interconnectedness of nature and humanity while turning a blind eye to racial and economic injustice. In other words, if you advocate for endangered species, she says, you should also advocate for endangered black lives.
Leah is just the latest in a long line of Black Environmentalists who have been frustrated by White Environmentalists’ failure to consider the intersection of race with environmentalism. Back in 1982, Chavis listed as one of the causes of environmental racism the “history of excluding people of color from leadership of the ecology movements.” And, unfortunately, there hasn’t been that much progress making the leaders of the environmental movement more diverse. As long as that is the case, the environmental movement will be hamstrung by the fact that millions of people don’t see themselves in the movement. This is particularly galling because Americans of Color self-report being more concerned about climate change than White Americans do. Inclusive climate justice activist Mikaela Loach argues that to address this issue allies should “step up, so Black folks have the time and energy to invest in creating climate solutions” instead of using their energy to “explain [our] existence to other people” in predominantly white environmentalist spaces.
The truth is, we cannot solve the massive environmental crises facing us today without the input of all communities. So, any environmentalism that excludes people based on race, gender, religion, or any other characteristic is self-defeating. Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, a marine biologist who focuses on climate justice, puts it this way:
“I simply don’t see how we win at addressing the climate crisis without elevating Black, and Indigenous, and Latinx, and Asian leaders. Because it is not merely a technical challenge we are facing. It’s not just about solar panels and electric cars. This is about how we implement solutions, how we replicate and scale them; it’s about communities and governments and corporations changing the way they do things–solving the climate crisis is about everything. So we need to find ways that everyone can be a part of this transformation.”
Books on Environmental Justice and Black Environmentalism:
A Terrible Thing to Waste by Harriet A. Washington
Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land by Leah Penniman
What is Critical Environmental Justice? by David Naguib Pellow
The Black Shoals: Offshore Formations of Black and Native Studies by Tiffany Lethabo King
Unequal Protection: Environmental Justice and Communities of Color by Robert Bulldard
The Rise of the American Conservation Movement: Power, Privilege, and Environmental Protection by Dorcetta Taylor