Over the last three decades, the environmental justice movement has made significant strides in documenting the deep connections between race and environmental harm.
Environmental racism refers to any policy, practice, or directive that differentially...disadvantages (whether intended or unintended) individuals, groups, or communities based on race or color.
The systematic destruction of indigenous peoples' land and sacred sites, the poisoning of Native Americans on reservations, Africans in the Niger Delta, African-Americans in Louisiana's "Cancer Alley," and Mexicans in the border town and colonias all have their roots in economic exploitation, racial oppression, devaluation of human life and the natural environment, and corporate” ( Bullard 2001 )
As the framework has expanded, the environmental justice movement identified multiple dimensions of environmental racism --
Environmental Racism is racial discrimination:
• in environmental policy-making.
• in the enforcement of regulations and laws.
• in the deliberate targeting of communities of color for toxic waste disposal and the location of polluting industries .
• in the official sanctioning of the life-threatening presence of poisons and pollutants in communities of color.
• in the history of excluding people of color from the mainstream environmental groups, decision making boards, commissions, and regulatory bodies. (Bullard 2005)
While much progress has been made clarifying the role of racism (or
what Patriot Daily News Clearinghouse refers to as Eco White Privilege) in targeting communities of color for hazardous waste and polluting industries, the green movement remain, at least in the USA, dominated by white leadership and a white agenda. This situation raises questions about the efficacy of a green movement that fails to center race class and gender in deep ways; it also allows the green agenda to be open to co-opted by groups who are motivated, at least in part, by racism.
This diary is intended to raise questions by high-lighting a case in point -- surely not the only one -- and offer some suggestions for a more inclusive approach. But the answers must be arrived at collectively, with a real commitment to a green movement where communities of color play a more central role in defining and implementing the green movement vision.
New Orleans Post- Katrina : Common Ground Collective and the Whitening of Recovery Efforts
Louisiana has long been at the fore of discussions of environmental racism. Home to the infamous Cancer Alley , Louisiana was awash in environmental racism long before either the BP Oil Disaster or Hurricane Katrina.
But Katrina from start to finish, then and now , has revealed additional layers of environmental racism -- failure to attend to weak levees and I-Walls, failure to evacuate, failure to facilitate return of black residents, formaldehyde-laced FEMA trailers,failure to offer meaningful assistance in re-building decimated neighborhoods, - all issues that persist in the so-called New Orleans "recovery".
Recent Census data indicate what has been clear to even the most causal observer :
the city has roughly 24,000 fewer white residents than it did 10 years ago, though the proportion of the white population has grown to 30 percent.
There are 56,193 fewer children, a drop of nearly 44 percent.
While the City of New Orleans itself is 80% 'recovered', less than 20% of the Lower Ninth Ward has returned. .It remains as it has for the past five years, a veritable wasteland.
It is demeaning and disrespectful for us to look the way we look," said 'A Community Voice' Board Member Vanessa Gueringer. "It says to black New Orleanians in these flooded neighborhoods that the quality of your life does not matter."
They said the Lower Nine is still the highlight of Katrina disaster tours, and they pointed out the lack of infrastructure, from senior centers, to enough schools, to street repairs, even grass cutting.
"It is environmental racism," said Gueringer. "It is environmental injustice. And the city doesn't like the word racism, but they are doing nothing to address what is happening in our neighborhoods."
Yes there are efforts underway to "rebuild' the Lower Ninth, but the most prominent efforts -- Common Ground Collective and Make It Right! -- are increasingly dominated by white non-Native New Orleans and may be furthering agendas which while laudable in many respects may not best reflect the immediate concerns of immediate residents.
For a variety of reasons, some outlined in Criminal InJustice Kos, here and here), I have been going to the Lower Ninth Ward annually for the past five years. Every year i have seen the same un-remedied destruction and the increasingly white -led efforts at recovery.
Common Ground Collective was originally founded by Malik Rahim as an emergency health clinic in Algiers, Common Ground is now a burgeoning non-profit fueled with $$ from the Roddick Foundation with an endless flow of out of town volunteers. On every visit, the Common Ground cast gets whiter and more out of town -- Coordinator Tom from Miami, Zack from New York, Scott from Ontario, Heather from Wisconsin, Amanda from Maryland. Not a local or a person of color in sight.
And whiter and more out of town describes the immediate agenda as well. Putting legal services and re -building on the back-burner, wetland restoration has become the current focus. Of course that is the long -term solution, Of course it must be done. Of course we are in favor of it. But as students and I helped construct rain-gardens in a still vacant neighborhood - no residents, no schools,no stores, nothing - we had to wonder if the short-term interests of displaced residents could have been better served . If only someone had asked.
The immediate efforts at re-building -- frankly only organized - come in the form of the 150 promised eco - perfect Brad Pitt houses. 14 -- that's right - 14 are completed. Snail's pace. Yes they are beautiful and yes they are green -- solar panels the whole deal.. I wish i had one. But ask the locals and mixed feelings emerge. They certainly don't fit with historic local style. They are expensive by Lower Ninth standards. Home--owners who once had no mortgage now do, and depending upon who you ask they may or may not own the plots the homes are built on. And of course, they can never ever be sold, except back to Brad that is.
None of this is meant to be overly critical of the philanthropy of Brad Pitt or the efforts that are being lead by Common Ground Collective.. But the visions enacted are theirs - not necessarily those of the current and former residents of the Lower Ninth Ward.. Where are the voices of color?? What are the wishes of the people impacted? What might have been different had they run the show??
Race and Representation in The Green Movement
None of the questions raised above are specific to New Orleans. I have personally encountered the relative lack of people of color in leadership positions in nearly every environmental organization. both local and national, I have been part of from coops to anti-factory farming initiatives to l and stewardship efforts to climate crisis projects to to animal rights organizations to prairie restoration to clean water action. Van Jones , Maroja Carter, Winona LaDuke , Carl Anthony not withstanding, this is a national issue.
Certainly,many of the big green groups, like Greenpeace and The National Wildlife federation ,are the sphere of college-educated middle class whites, centered on conservation and climate change. More than one third of green organizations and one fifth of green government agencies cannot count a single person of color on staff , according to a University of Michigan study.
On the flip-side, signing up with the green giants has been of little concern for many people of color. African American polled in another University of Michigan study were largely concerned with environmental issues that had immediacy in there lives and communities. This was even more so the case for low income people of color.
This exclusion by default or design, is indicative of all aspects of the green movement, but has become particular;y noteworthy with refernce to the food movement. In Sustainable Food and Privilege: Why is Green Always White (and Male and Upper-Class) , Janani Balasubramanian notes this :
All social movements need a variety of voices, but I argue that food reform requires this diversity even more urgently because it is so universal in its reach. And if we can reach all those voices, then think of all the activists we will have as allies—feminists, anti-racists, interfaith leaders, and so on—interested and involved because food justice speaks to the needs of their communities and their call for action (activists: this is on you too—get on board!). As consumers of this kind of liberal rhetoric, we need to demand that the powers and big hitters in the food world diversify their representations. The food movement can only grow more powerful for it.
There are no easy answers, only the hard work of coalition building.
And following some seemingly trite but true advice --Talk to people. Use your defensiveness as a learning tool. Take the time to learn the issues important to other people. Find and support green groups that represent the grassroots interests of people of color -- consulting People of Color Environmental Groups Directory or the National Black Environmental Justice Network (NBEJN) is a great place to start. Celebrate diversity in human cultures with as much gusto as you would celebrate biological diversity in a Brazilian forest.
The EcoJustice series discusses environmental justice: the disproportionate impacts on human health and all living things as a result of climate change, extreme weather, and pollution. A key focus of our writing is the environmental impacts on minority communities in countries around the world. A key tenet of Environmental Justice is that all living things have a right to clean, healthy and sustainable communities.
Today, the concept of Environmental Justice extends to include such related issues as climate, food and ecosystem justice.
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