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Corporations and Environmental Racism

by Jeff Chang, Lucia Hwang Thursday, Aug. 17, 2000 at 2:51 AM

In 1991, the National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit literally changed the face of environmental and community organizing. Jeff Chang and Lucia Hwang look at the Summit, its legacy, and the prospects for the coming 10th Anniversary Summit.

During the nineties, depending on which side of the debate you were on, the environmental movement either needlessly split in two or finally began dealing with its most pressing human rights issues. The decisive event was the National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in 1991.

Activists and organizers of color emerged from that convening under the banner of environmental justice, and the mainstream environmental movement would never be the same. Now, almost 10 years later, environmental justice advocates are assessing the state of their movement, with an eye to the future.

Four Words That Made the Difference

In the mid-eighties, the coining of two simple phrases--environmental racism and environmental justice--changed the way thousands viewed their world and their ability to change it for the better.

While local communities of color had been organizing around issues of toxic waste siting, public health, or land and water rights for years, a 1987 report by the United Church of Christ's Commission for Racial Justice, "Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States," began to popularize the notions of "environmental racism" and "environmental justice." The report found that race, not income, was the single most important factor determining where toxic waste was sited.

Richard Moore had been fighting toxic dumping in his Chicano community for 20 years. "In Albuquerque, we [Latinos] house the only municipal sewage facility in the whole city and county," Moore says. "We're completely surrounded by petrochemical companies. We're housing the largest pig farm in the county. We're housing one of the largest chicken farms. What I'm saying is that we're completely surrounded, in one form or another, in shit, OK?"

"The opposite side of that coin is that we want to be here," he adds. "We're very proud of our community. We've raised our families up here. Some would say, `Why don't you pack up your stuff and leave?' Well, it's about standing up for justice."

Moore recalls when the authors of "Toxic Wastes," Reverend Ben Chavis and Charles Lee, came to New Mexico to present their findings. "I remember sitting in that church (watching the presentation)," he says. "And there were smiles among those of us involved in grassroots organizing, because we were seeing basically our own community in front of our eyes, but the communities would be in North Carolina or Mississippi or South Carolina or Alabama. And they were using environmental justice language."

Around the same time, Tom Goldtooth was an activist in Minnesota struggling to develop environmental programs for the Ojibway people without assistance from the Environmental Protection Agency. He says he felt the government was not fulfilling its responsibility to protect the country's resources--both physical and human. "That's when I started to look at some of the terminology that was coming out of the environmental justice movement of `environmental racism' and `environmental injustice,'" Goldtooth says. "I thought, `This is what I'm experiencing here with the work I'm doing. Racism rears its ugly head when it comes to protecting Native people.'"

It's About Race, Stupid

The new language made it possible for local grassroots organizers to begin to understand their work differently. Soon regional environmental justice networks began springing up across the country. In the South, African American organizations joined to fight hazardous waste proposals and to clean up communities such as Warren County, North Carolina and Louisiana's Cancer Alley. In the Southwest, Moore and other Chicano, Latino, and indigenous organizers formed the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice (SNEEJ), which now has 80 affiliate organizations. Native Americans gathered at Dilkon on the Navajo reservation in the summer of 1990 to discuss toxic and nuclear dumping on Indian lands, sowing the seeds for the creation of the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN), which Goldtooth now heads.

In October 1991, these regional and ethnic networks helped convene the first National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C. Over a thousand organizers and activists from all 50 states as well as Mexico, Canada, Brazil, Nigeria, Chile, and Ghana attended.

At first, Goldtooth was skeptical that a national body could help his work on the reservation. But then, he says, he heard the testimonies of African American, Mexican American, Asian American, and Native peoples. "That just kind of hit me--that it's a life-and-death situation that's going on," he says. "It's not just the communities here in Minnesota, it's not just Native people, but it's all people of color."

The Summit helped organizers understand the breadth of the environmental justice concept, both domestically and internationally. "There was a tendency toward `Not In My Backyard.' What we said very clearly at the People of Color Summit was `Not In Anybody's Backyard,'" Moore says.

Indeed, central to the Summit was a critique of the white mainstream environmental movement, which organizers of color found to be racially exclusionary and narrowly focused. The year before, organizers had sent letters to the so-called Group of 10--mainstream environmental organizations, such as the Sierra Club, the National Audubon Society, and the National Wildlife Confederation--asking them to discuss the exclusion of communities of color from the environmental movement. When the letters failed to spur cooperative action, the organizers called for the Summit.

Moore believes most environmental organizations still have a "closed-box" mentality. "Their opinion is that [a group should] just want to work on pesticides, or air, or land, or water issues, and it's not as simple as that from a people of color perspective," Moore says.

As Goldtooth explains, groups serving people of color must address a whole spectrum of interconnected problems. IEN provides information on just about anything, from protection of sacred sites to intellectual property rights. "I always envied some of the other environmental organizations that can focus just on one issue," says Goldtooth. "We somehow did not have that luxury at IEN because of the vast unmet needs in Indian country. Of course, [mainstream] groups don't understand that."

Pamela Chiang's experience organizing Laotian residents in refinery-dominated Richmond, California, is similar. "Sometimes we get together and our members end up talking about why their children or grandchildren are getting pulled over and harassed [by police]," says Chiang, lead organizer with the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN) in the Bay Area. "Folks just don't have a vehicle for talking about stuff."

Race and Class: The EJ Cut

The Summit confirmed that organizers of color had developed a different approach to environmental organizing. In many cases the traditional approach to cleaning up the environment did not go far enough. "If you look at contaminated seafood, for the mainstream environmental movement, it's about clean water," says Peggy Saika, director of APEN. "But for us, it's also about Laotian refugees still fishing to feed their families. Clean water is too narrow. It's a survival issue; that's the EJ cut."

Many environmental justice groups also use the word "economic" in their names, signifying that economic issues cannot be separated from environmental issues. "How can we separate water issues from worker issues?" asks Moore. "Workers are being exposed inside the facility to toxic chemicals, and then the poisoning of the ground water is happening outside the facility."

In 1997 the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union (OCAW) and SNEEJ cemented this recognition of convergent interests through an agreement to work together to help workers transition from jobs at companies or industries that environmentalists want to shut down to alternative employment.

Participants emerged from the Summit with a set of 16 "Principles of Environmental Justice." In addition to environmental goals, the principles demanded "that public policy be based on mutual respect and justice for all people" and affirmed "the fundamental right to political, economic, cultural, and environmental self-determination of all peoples."

In the next decade the principles would come to serve as a guide for a rapidly developing, decentralized, grassroots movement based on a fundamental commitment to racial justice.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

"The Summit really served as a springboard from which all kinds of environmental justice and economic justice groups could actually be launched," says Bob Bullard, one of the organizers of the Summit and the director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University.

In 1990 Bullard assembled a list of 250 organizations to invite to the Summit. Since that time, he says, the number of organizations working on environmental justice has at least doubled. Winona LaDuke, program director of the Native American-centered Honor The Earth Fund and the author of All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life, counts 200 indigenous environmental groups alone.

In the wake of the Summit, the environmental justice movement seemed to gather steam. Asian and Pacific Islander Summit participants formed APEN in Oakland, California. In December 1993, black church leaders convened another national summit on environmental justice and endorsed an agenda linking economic and environmental justice--an event that drew Vice President Al Gore.

And in February of 1994, finally meeting a recommendation made in the original Commission on Racial Justice Report, President Clinton signed Executive Order 12898, which mandated each Federal agency to "make achieving environmental justice part of its mission."

By mid-decade, however, the environmental justice movement found itself confronting an indifferent administration and relentless attacks from the right.

Bob Bullard, who helped advise Clinton on environmental justice matters during his first term, is disappointed with the administration's legacy. "It has not gone far enough in implementing and giving teeth to the Executive Order or in trying to initiate legislation," Bullard says. "We lost a golden opportunity when you had a Democratic president and a Democratic majority in the House and the Senate. It was squandered."

Worse, he says, "During the second [Clinton] administration, we were fighting uphill to keep the gains that we had won." Over the past 10 years, business interests have grown more savvy in their attacks on environmental justice. Industries orchestrate the backlash, pooling their attorneys, planners, and economists--even pumping money into universities endeavoring to refute environmental racism, Goldtooth notes. Right-wing politicians have been advocating the removal of the right of EJ activists to sue under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.

In New Mexico, a waste company forced out of the Sunland Park community by anti-toxic medical incinerator activists and SNEEJ filed a "SLAPP" suit in December of 1994 against Richard Moore, fellow SNEEJ organizer Louis Head, and the SouthWest Organizing Project--a SNEEJ member. "That incinerator is closed down," Moore says. "They are unhappy. They moved on to sue."

A New Terrain

Throughout the nineties, the mainstream environmental movement mounted a racial backlash. After California's passage of anti-immigrant Proposition 187, environmental justice activists found themselves fighting environmental activists over immigration issues.

In 1998, population control advocates forced a vote among the half-million members of the Sierra Club on whether the Club should support restrictions on immigration. EJ activists termed the nativist push "the Greening of Hate." After heavy EJ organizing, the Club eventually voted down the anti-immigrant referendum, but not before some progressive members of the board and staff resigned in disgust.

During the debate over the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), EJ activists were frozen out of discussions on the effects of free trade on the environment and labor. Moore notes that, in so-called "sidebar agreements," representatives of national environmental and labor organizations forged deals "with no participation from people of color, grassroots people, women, and workers that are the most highly impacted."

At the recent demonstrations in Seattle against the World Trade Organization, Moore and Goldtooth's organizations again found themselves on the outside looking in. "We had to really knock on doors and to assert ourselves as people of color to have a face and have a voice in those WTO activities, even with some of our own allies," says Goldtooth.

In fact, the decentralized character of the environmental justice movement may have limited its ability to influence some major decisions. But at the Summit, activists had decided to focus on building a mass movement based on grassroots, bottom-up participation and decision-making instead of bunkering down in Washington, DC.

"[Being decentralized] has its good days and it has its bad days," Moore says. "Mostly I think it's had good days, because the direction of this movement is basically in the hands of grassroots communities and should continue to be that way. But it's very difficult to build a movement that is decentralized."

Damu Smith, interim coordinator of the National Black Environmental and Economic Justice Coordinating Committee, believes that the time has come to launch a nationally coordinated campaign. Last December over 300 black environmental justice leaders from across the country gathered in New Orleans to network and declare a "state of emergency" on environmental racism and economic injustice in their communities. The group plans to meet again this May 2001 in Detroit.

"We're losing the spin battle, if you will," Smith says. He is particularly disturbed by some prominent black business, community, and government leaders who promote the idea that environmental justice blocks economic development for black communities. "We are really getting kicked as a result of not being organized at the national level."

Building a Strong Backbone

Despite the setbacks, the environmental justice movement has built a sturdy infrastructure of small, stable groups and is constantly exploring ways to expand into new territories.

Six networks, including APEN, SNEEJ, and IEN, recently established an Environmental Justice Fund, which allows employees of participating companies to check off automatic contributions from their paychecks. Saika says that the Fund will help create capacity within EJ networks and fund emerging networks of local organizations.

The EJ Fund is beginning to assess the needs of its networks, and will later undertake a larger assessment of the movement itself. According to organizers, globalization will be at the top of the agenda both in the assessment and in the 10th Anniversary Summit, planned for October 2001. In New Orleans, Smith's group developed an ambitious, three-year action plan to defend environmental justice tools, such as the Executive Order and Title VI, and to secure new tools. Among them, Smith says, should be a federal policy to help poor residents temporarily relocate away from hazardous areas. "We need an emergency program to get people out of harm's way," Smith says. Another should be a national economic policy supporting clean production and, thereby, sustainable development, he notes. In addition, the movement needs to recruit and train youth leaders. "It's going to take time," Smith says.

Despite the uphill battle, most organizers agree that the environmental justice approach has been fruitful. "I think there's been more successes in the environmental justice arena than the environmental arena," says Goldtooth. "But then again, the war isn't over. It's international now. With economic globalization and the impact of these trade instruments, we have more challenges in the next couple of decades."

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