Pollution Is Killing Black Americans. This Community Fought Back.

Four years later, hundreds of Warren County residents and environmental and civil rights activists were arrested as they rallied to stop construction of the landfill. A line of protesters lay in the street, blocking dump trucks full of the toxic soil. A group of mostly women and children clung to each other while being wrenched apart and dragged into buses by state troopers who had been summoned to break up the rallies. The evening news featured video of Black leaders, flanked by highway-patrol officers, marching arm and arm with the local organizers and singing “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” to the tune of the old protest song “Which Side Are You On?”

The rallies, marches, arrests and media attention weren’t enough to stop the landfill, but they did galvanize a growing movement against environmental racism, a term coined by the Rev. Dr. Benjamin Chavis, a leader of the protest in North Carolina. The following year, the U.S. General Accounting Office examined hazardous-waste-landfill placement and found that Black residents made up a majority in three of the four communities with hazardous-waste landfills in the eight Southern states that make up E.P.A. Region IV.

In 1987, the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice, then headed by Chavis, issued a report, “Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States,” that was the first to examine race, class and the environment on a national level. The study revealed that three out of five Black and Hispanic-Americans, or more than 23 million people, resided in communities blighted by toxic-waste sites and found that while socioeconomic status was an important correlation, race was the most significant factor.

Bullard continued his research after the Whispering Pines lawsuit in Houston, finding the same correlation. In his 1990 book, “Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class and Environmental Quality,” using case studies including Sumter County, Ala., the site of the nation’s largest hazardous-waste landfill, Bullard argued that pollution from solid-waste facilities, hazardous-waste landfills, toxic-waste dumps and chemical emissions from industrial facilities was exacting a heavy toll on Black communities across the country. His book became a bible for the nascent environmental-justice movement.

In 2007, the United Church of Christ updated its research, this time with Bullard as a principal author, in “Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty: 1987-2007,” finding that racial disparities in the location of toxic-waste facilities were “greater than previously reported.” People of color made up a majority of the population in communities within 1.8 miles of a polluting facility, and race — not income or property values — was the most significant predictor. The following year, a study by two University of Colorado social scientists published in the journal Sociological Perspectives found that African-American families with incomes of $50,000 to $60,000 were more likely to live in environmentally polluted neighborhoods than white households with incomes below $10,000.

As more research established such disparities, frustration grew with the mainstream environmental movement. In March 1990, more than 100 grass-roots activists, almost all of them people of color, signed an accusatory letter to 10 of the most prominent environmental groups. “Racism is a root cause of your inaction around addressing environmental problems in our communities,” they wrote, demanding that the organizations increase staffing of people of color to 35 to 40 percent (the demand was not met). The following year, more than 500 people gathered in Washington, D.C., for the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, dispelling the assumption that Black and brown people are not interested in or involved with environmental issues.

The federal government was shamed into action. Early in 1990, the Congressional Black Caucus met with E.P.A. officials to discuss the polluting of communities of color and why the government agency was not addressing the needs of their constituents. In November 1992, the E.P.A. created the Office of Environmental Equity (later changed to Environmental Justice). In 1994, President Bill Clinton issued an executive order to address adverse health and environmental conditions in minority and low-income populations. The government also established a multimillion-dollar grant program to support grass-roots organizations working on environmental-justice issues. A local nonprofit in Spartanburg, S.C., leveraged an initial grant of $20,000 in 1997 into $270 million to clean up and revitalize three neighborhoods near an operating chemical-fertilizer manufacturing plant, two Superfund sites and six brownfield sites.

source: nytimes.com