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  • Lesley Joseph

Let's Talk about Environmental Racism


“So maybe you should go and tell your white friends about what’s really going on.”


His words were heartfelt, piercing, and yet, filled with anger and frustration. I was a sophomore at the University of South Carolina, and I was attending the Environmental Justice (EJ) summit, which was hosted by the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network (NCEJN) at the invitation of my research advisor, Dr. Sacoby Wilson, who is a pioneer in the Environmental Justice movement. This older, wiser black man, who was an attendee of the summit, had just heard me talk at length about my commitment as an environmentalist. My leadership in the SAGE (Students Advocating for a Greener Environment) student group on campus. My advocacy as an intern at the Center for A Sustainable Future. The numerous community and river cleanups that I organized. And he listened to me, and he genuinely cared about my desire to do good.


Then, it was his turn. He told me about how his small, black neighborhood. He told me about how dirty the water was. He told me about the polluted air around his children’s school. He told me how difficult it was to buy “real groceries”. Then he said something very interested: “I wish they cared about us.” Right then, I knew who the “they” was and who the “us” was. And then, he ended with the initial quote in the article: “So maybe you should go and tell your white friends about what’s really going on.”


I did not know it at the time, but what was “really going on” was environmental racism. Plain and simple. Environmental racism is defined by the reality that communities of color in the United States are more likely to be exposed to hazardous and unsafe environments. A well-known, contemporary example of this is the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, which is still ongoing. However, environmental racism, just like all other forms of systemic racism, takes on many forms. It could be the disproportionate siting of hazardous facilities, such as landfills and coal-fired power plants, in black neighborhoods. It could be the poorly maintained water infrastructure and bad air quality in predominately black sections of town. It may even entail the destruction of historically black neighborhoods to build roads that are deemed “beneficial” for the city. The term “Environmental Racism” also acknowledges the reality that environmental injustices present today are, according to the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network (NCEJN), “the result of historical processes that privilege whites and continue to promote racial inequality culturally, institutionally, legally and ideologically.” Up until that point, I had never heard about it. In all of the environmental organizations that I had participated in, which were made up of exclusively white students, this idea never was remotely mentioned, even as these organizations lamented the lack of clean water and reliable sanitation in other developing countries. It was eye-opening for me.


Of course, as with the Civil Rights Movement and many other movements that seek to redress the harm brought upon the black community by white supremacy and systemic racism, the black church is at the forefront of the fight for environmental justice. Black church members in the United Church of Christ, most notably Dollie Burwell, an active member in the United Church of Christ who is often referred to as the “Mother of the Environmental Justice Movement”, led a team of researchers to develop the landmark “Toxic Wastes and Race” report in 1987, which clearly showed that race (not household income) was the predominant factor for the placement of toxic waste sites. Since the inception of the environmental justice movement, black pastors and churches have been fighting for clean water, clean air, and food security, and better living conditions. Even in my home state of South Carolina, there are pastors confronting environmental racism and working on the water issues in black neighborhoods across the state.


We need to talk about this. There needs to be more conversation in our churches and in our communities about environmental racism and justice. Perhaps the poor health conditions and low academic performances from our children have nothing to do with making “poor choices” or “not trying hard enough”. It may be the result of a lack of healthy food options in the neighborhood. Perhaps it’s the presence of polluting factories or landfills. All I’m saying is look around. Maybe environmental racism is the issue. And we need justice.

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