Black Lives Matter & Environmental Justice

Several CEH staff were interested in taking part in a conversation around the issues raised by the Black lives matter movement and our work in environmental health and justice. Among the leading tenets of environmental justice is the dictum, “we speak for ourselves” (it’s even the title of the 1990 book edited by Dr. Robert Bullard, one of the fathers of the environmental justice movement). To honor this motto, we interviewed CEH staff asking about environmental justice, environmental racism, and the connections between the environment, health, and race in America. Below, some excerpts from the conversation.

Tenya Steele, CEH Eastern States Director’s Executive Assistant

Environmental justice means social justice, at the crux of it, environmental justice is a social issue…. We think of fair treatment of an individual, but for me it includes anywhere I live or work or play or the space I occupy or the air I breathe…. Someone’s space is hard to measure, but if the environment isn’t treated fairly, there’s an injustice…. Dr. Robert Bullard did a study on citing patterns of waste dumps in Houston and found it wasn’t a random, they were repeatedly located in black communities: 4 of 5 incinerators were located in black communities, the 5th was cited in a Hispanic community..

[Environmental justice] is less and less of a black issue, and more of a social issue, and also an economic issue…. It’s closing in on all of us. Health effects are starting sooner, younger people are getting diseases we once heard of only in elders, young kids are now victims of police brutality and crimes…. This is crossing racial boundaries, spinning into white rural communities, like fracking, which is problem for rural, white populations….

I would like to say things are getting better, I’m an optimist, in most people’s hearts, love and acceptance does exist…. But the resurgence of racial tensions causes one to think things are getting worse…. Historically, racism is what this country was founded on, so I guess some things haven’t changed….

Alvaro Casanova, CEH Environmental Justice Inclusion Fellow

When I think of environmental justice, I think of the built environment — buildings, freeways, bus depots…it’s not just the pollution that goes into the environment and effects our bodies, it’s also how we construct and build and place people next to these hazards…. When youth were surveyed in [California’s] Central Valley, they replied that not only were pollution and police part of their environmental justice issues, but also prisons, the building of prisons and the economy that creates there, and the mindset that creates in these communities about their value…

I’ve worked with a lot of young people, and while pollution impacts their development, I’ve also seen the impact of violence and the health effects of trauma, and of not having access to medical services to deal with that trauma…. Mainstream environmental justice deals with toxic health effects. A broader, more nuanced approach would include trauma and its effect on the community and how it defines the environment….

It’s hard to say if [racism] is getting better or worse…. New technologies can give better understanding and more compassion, but also more anonymity to go off on racist rants. People are engaging in the conversation more, and that’s always good.

Michelle Endo, CEH Research Associate

Environmental justice means to create a world in which people from all groups and classes have an opportunity to participate equally in environmental decision-making around their bodies, where they live, work, and in the environment around them….In an environmentally just world, everyone would be able to fulfill their greatest life goals, without having to deal with diseases like asthma, cancer or other health problems…. Many people of color are disadvantaged from the moment they’re born, from the health care they receive, the health care they’re mother received, even just the stress of being a person of color can impact the way children grow up….

It’s important that the movement is in the hands of the people most effected, but it’s hard when those people are sick from unhealthy environments…. [Our housing coop] held “power and privilege” workshops to keep our house a safe space, not only for people of color but also for people who identify as LGBTQ, women, other marginalized groups, people who deal with disabilities…. We want to work to make sure that white allies of the movement defer to black voices-pretty much everywhere, white voices are the ones being heard, and people of colors’ voices are often put aside…. In the same way that environmental justice leaders would want the people who are suffering from these conditions to be heard, since black people are the ones being targeted by police, they should be the ones speaking….

For more on the connections between race and environmental health and justice, see a 2012 interview with Robert Bullard; two recent Grist article by Brenton Mock here and here; and a Movement Generation series on “Black Liberation and Ecology.”