What Is Environmental Racism?

Kathryn Savoie interviews Bunyan Bryant

BUNYAN BRYANT, an associate professor at the University of Michigan in the School of Natural Resources and Environment, was a delegate to the First People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit and a member of its advisory committee. He is the co-editor with Paul Mohai of the newly published Race and the Incidence of Environmental Hazards (Boulder, CO: Westwood Press). He was interviewed for Against the Current by Kathryn Savoie, who attended the Leadership Summit as an observer and is the author of a doctoral thesis on agriculture in Nicaragua.

ATC: Define “environmental racism.”

Bunyan Bryant: I define environmental racism as those policies, or decisions, or behaviors that result in the disproportionate impact of environmental insult on people of color. These decisions can be either conscious or unconscious racism, but the net effect is the same.

For example, with respect to the Detroit area, we found that within a mile of hazardous waste facilities forty-eight percent of residents are people of color. Within a mile and a half, thirty-nine percent are people of color. Beyond that distance, for Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties the percentage of people of color is eighteen percent.

There are more striking results in the National Law Journal, September 21, 1992, which talks about the average penalties under the Resource, Recovery and Conservation Act: In white areas the average fine for violations was $335,566, while for Black or minority neighborhoods it was $55,318. That is, in a Black neighborhood the fine is a slap on the wrist, the cost of doing business. That in effect encourages industries to pollute in minority areas.

There’s another interesting statistic with respect to lead. Every ten-to-fifteen microliters of lead found in the blood is associated with a four-to-six point decrease in IQ. I used to go to Detroit where I saw a huge number of kids diagnosed as retarded. Have educators made a mistaken diagnosis of mental retardation where there was in fact lead poisoning? You’re talking about millions of inner city kids who are vulnerable to lead poisoning and mental retardation.

ATC: I want to ask about the conventional perceptions regarding people of color and the environment. There’s a widespread view even among socialists that the environment isn’t an issue for people of color. Why does this perception exist, and what is your perspective on it.

B.B.: My perspective is that people of color have always been concerned about the environment, particularly the quality of life issues such as garbage, rats and roaches, air and drinking water, boarded-up houses, recreation facilities. These issues of a human-made environment have to do with their very survival.

In the Detroit area, my colleague Professor Paul Mohai and I had 793 face-to-face interviews with people in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties. When it came to more “abstract” environmental issues–ozone depletion, global warming, wilderness, things of that character–there was no difference between the average responses of white and Black people. Both groups felt these were serious problems.

But there were definite differences when it came to quality of life issues. Blacks were much more concerned, feeling that boarded up housing or lack of recreation facilities, rats, crime, drugs were of greater concern than whites did; this isn’t surprising considering where Black people often live.

We have also had some national leaders who have been very concerned about the environment. In 1970, for example, Black sociologist Nathan Hare authored an article in The Black Scholar criticizing white environmentalists for not focusing on the urban area as an environmental problem. That same year, James Farmer [one-time CORE leader] stated in an Earth Day speech that the environment was just as important as civil rights.

In 1978, Vernon Jordan stated that labor-intensive technologies, or appropriate technologies, were good both for protecting the environment and for providing jobs for Blacks. And the League of Conservation Voters states that the Congressional Black Caucus has the best environmental voting record, as compared with their white counterparts. Congressman John Conyers has a bill to make the Environmental Protection Agency a Cabinet-level position.

ATC: Given the history of people of color’s environmental concerns, why the perception that they aren’t interested?

B.B.: People of color haven’t joined or financially supported traditional white environmental organizations. They work in their own organizations such as churches, block clubs or neighborhood groups, trying to deal with environmental degradation. So environmentalists have said that Blacks aren’t concerned.

When Jesse Jackson ran for president, he had one of the best environmental programs compared to his Democratic rivals. None of the white environmentalists jumped on his bandwagon. Another example is a National Opinion Research Center finding that over a ten-year period, in every year except one (1985), a higher percentage of Blacks than whites said that too few dollars were spent on protecting the environment.

ATC: Can you tell us about the People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit and how it came about?

B.B.: Why it was called, probably goes back to a number of previous events. One was the struggle that took place in Warren County, North Carolina, where both Blacks and whites blockaded trucks with their bodies to stop soil laced with PCBs from entering a landfill in a primarily Black area. There were over 500 arrested
in the course of about a month.

From that point Congressman Walter Fauntroy, who was arrested in that struggle, called on the General Accounting Office to so a study of EPA’s Region 4; they found that three of four large landfills were located in predominantly Black areas. That prompted the United Church of Christ study on Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States, commissioned by Rev. Ben Chavis. This came out in 1987.

Bob Bullard and Beverly Wright are two African-American scholars who have written extensively in this area. Their findings had a national impact.

In 1990 Paul Mohai and I put together a Retrieval/Dissemination conference at the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources called “Race and the Incidence of Environmental Hazards.” These weren’t all the events, but perhaps some of the important ones.

At our 1990 conference held here at Michigan, out of twelve presenters there were nine people of color. In the audience we had people from the Department of Natural Resources, EPA, the governor’s office, local ecology centers, etc. A book from the conference has just been published–which was really the only thing we had planned–but the event went beyond our expectations.

At the end of the conference it was suggested that we have a larger one, inviting more community people. I’m not saying the Leadership Summit flowed directly from our conference, but it did set the stage.

The People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit brought people together to share stories about their pain, anguish and suffering, and try to feel out what we could do to work together. At the Summit we came up with seventeen environmental justice principles to take back to our communities as a focal point for organizing.

ATC: What were some of those principles?

B.B.: Some of them are as follows [summarizing from conference document]: Environmental justice affirms the sacredness of Mother Earth’s unity and the interdependence of all species; upholds the right to be free from ecological destruction; demands that public policy be based on mutual respect and justice for all people, free
from any form of discrimination or bias; calls for universal protection from nuclear testing, extraction and production, and from disposal of toxic hazardous wastes and poisons that threaten the fundamental right to clean air, land, water and food.

Environmental justice affirms the right of all workers to a safe and healthy work environment, without being forced to choose between an unsafe life and unemployment. It also affirms the right of those who work at home to be free from environmental hazards. Environmental justice opposes the destructive practices of multinational corporations; opposes military occupation, repression and the exploitation of lands, peoples, cultures and other life forms.

Environmental justice requires that we as individuals make choices to consume as little of Mother Earth’s resources and to produce as little waste as possible and make a conscious decision in our life styles to ensure the lives of ourselves and future generations.

ATC: So this is a much broader definition of environmentalism than that of the predominantly white environmental movement.

B.B.: The issue is to try to re-define the environmental movement to be more inclusive. The Civil Rights Movement had gone into neutral gear, i.e. not going anyplace; so now people of color are beginning to look not only through the window of civil rights but also through the window of the environment for organizing against
oppression and exploitation; they are beginning to combine the Civil Rights Movement with the environmental movement; they are beginning to champion civil rights by using environmental concepts.

ATC: What is the relationship with the mainstream environmental organizations?

B.B.: The relationship has been somewhat strained, in the sense that the white environmental organizations have been criticized for not having an integrated staff, that they are much more interested in non-human life than in people of color; traditional environmental organizations have a reputation of having access to
lots of money–while grassroots organizations have the reputation of having access to too few dollars.

Now some traditional organizations are hiring one or two people of color staff members and writing proposals to get lots of money for an urban focus. Grassroots organizations are asking, why don’t we get this money, to continue our work that we’ve been doing for years, instead of these organizations who are now hiring one or two minorities?

ATC: Don’t these traditional organizations also have ties to corporate polluters?

B.B.: If you are a national environmental organization and you have someone from Waste Management Inc. on your board of directors, and at the same time you are working in people of color communities with landfills, that’s a slap in their face. How can such an environmental organization really be true to its principles about wanting to have an “urban focus” and to work with people of color, with Waste Management on its board?

ATC: I’ve heard the word “historic” being used in connection with the Summit. And I was also struck by the conference dealing with people of color not just as victims, but as actors with their cultural backgrounds and historic perspectives.

B.B.: I think it was “historic” in the sense that this was the first time that people of color from all over the country including Hawaii, and a large contingent of Native Americans along with Blacks, Hispanics and Asians were involved, framed our own issues. Coming together in large numbers from different cultural backgrounds and working together over three or four days, we framed our issues not only in terms of civil rights, but in terms of environmental rights.

@I think there was a lot of potential cultural conflict. People were tolerant; they were able to respect each other’s differences. I found out that if I am really going to relate to cross-cultural coalitions, I am going to have to know a lot more about Hawaian, about Native American, Asian and Arab history.

I need to learn about the historical and cultural backgrounds of different people-of-color groups, in order to know how to relate to them. It was a signal to me when, for example, one Native American got up and said we shouldn’t spend all our energy clapping our hands. That was one very small example. He also said that while we were meeting in this hotel it was using as much energy as his whole community. Yet we were able to hang together and come up with the principles (cited above).

Right now the Southwest Organizing Network is one of the better organized groups in the environmental justice movement. We have the Gulf Coast Network, which held a conference in New Orleans in December. [See Rick Wadsworth’s account in this issue–editor]

About three weeks ago in Chicago we had a meeting to organize a Midwest environmental equity coalition. There’s a steering committee with Native American, Latino, Black and women representatives who will be talking about holding a conference to make our presence felt in the Midwest.

ATC: It’s exciting that this movement is able to unite labor, community, women’s activists from a variety of backgrounds and races to address a new definition of environmentalism. This movement might have much greater potential than the traditional environmental movement or the civil rights movement.

B.B.: We have to look at this historically: The environmental movement has been very conservative. If you go back to the 1870s you would find a movement led by John Muir, who was a naturalist and felt that wilderness areas should be left undisturbed. He was also oblivious to the human conditions, the exploitation of workers and Blacks in the forest.

Not only was Muir very conservative from my perspective; so was Gilford Pinchot, who under Teddy Roosevelt was the chief of the Division of Forestry (the forerunner of the National Forest Service). In contrast to Muir who was a “preservationist,” Pinchot said we had all this forest land that could be properly “managed”–for private profit.

One thing that’s interesting is that we have really gone after the “Big Ten” environmental organizations for not integrating their staff, and I think we should demand that they bring onto their boards more people of color. Now even though schools of natural resources are in the position of producing competent people for resource management–they don’t have many people of color in them. So at some point we have to figure out the location of these schools, and put some pressure on them.

Maybe the People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit could formulate an accreditation Board. We could offer to work with these schools; but if after two-to-three years they didn’t meet our collectively agreed-upon recruitment goals we would hold a press conference to ask that their accreditation be removed. In order for the Big Ten environmental organizations to be able to hire more staff people of color, schools of natural resources will have to educate more students of color, in order to create a critical mass from which Big Ten and other organizations can recruit.

ATC: In January there will be a new administration. Albert Gore has written a book on environmental issues. What do you think the people of color movement can expect from Washington now?

B.B.: Let me put it this way: I think that people of color cannot sit back and say everything will be taken care of. We can’t do that. We have to keep the pressure on for jobs, for environmental equity and protection, because if we don’t these countervailing forces, which are very strong, could assert a lot of influence.

I’ve read Gore’s book Earth in the Balance, and there were things I liked and things I thought were suspect. I think he places too much emphasis upon the market to solve our environmental problems. But I think he’s probably the only politician who understands the complexities of these issues. The players are now different in Washington and may be more amenable to pressures we exert. But we can’t let up. We will have to continue the struggle.

January-February 1993, ATC 42

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