Minorities Awaken to Environmental Racism A summit gathering tells polluters: 'Our Health Is Not Negotiable.'

EDWARD FLATTAU

November 01, 1991|By EDWARD FLATTAU

WASHINGTON. — Washington -- Last weekend a seminal convocation took place here, which I'm happy to report bodes ill for industrial polluters.

It was the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in which representatives of minority groups from all over the United States gathered to organize against the pervasive practice of environmental racism.

What made the occasion so important was that it marked the emergence of a unified stand that has been building for more than a decade in minority communities. Blacks, Asians, Hispanics and others finally had come to the realization that they were the primary victims of pollution -- and that their predicament was no coincidence.

Their environmental consciousness had been dramatically raised by a 1987 study of landfill and industrial plant sitings in the United States. That survey disclosed a pattern in which minority neighborhoods were being used as dumping grounds for the rest of society's toxic waste.

But the impetus for the summit did not originate from the survey alone. Only when the linkage between abnormally high rates of disease and nearby sources of industrial pollution became clear did these communities mobilize into a political force.

Minorities have not always been so leery of pollution. They initially welcomed the industrial facilities as a boost to ailing local economies. Industry and waste handlers, knowing how desperate these communities were for additional revenue and jobs, exploited the situation. They cultivated among American minorities an outlook which for years was dominant in many Third World countries -- that environmental protection was an impediment to economic prosperity, and thus a luxury only the wealthy could afford.

In 1978, the NAACP actually released a policy paper denouncing energy conservation and anti-pollution regulations as barriers to black socio-economic progress. Six years later, the National Conference of Black Mayors sided with the Reagan administration and the utility industry in opposing stricter rules to curb acid rain, again because of economic concerns.

Industrialists have continued trying to undermine with cash whatever environmental resolve might take root in minority communities. Witness the offers of millions of dollars to fiscally strapped Indian tribes in South Dakota if they will allow toxic waste dumps on their reservations.

But industrial polluters can no longer count on economic misfortune spreading a welcome mat for contaminant-spewing facilities. At the summit here, the slogan was ''our health is not negotiable.''

This emergent environmental awareness among minorities also plays havoc with big business' very successful ''divide and conquer'' strategy.

Industry has been able to use economic incentives to create conflicts among environmentalists, the labor movement and minority activist organizations, parties that would normally be allies. The effectiveness of this strategy diminished somewhat in recent years as national environmental groups broadened their agendas to include public health as well as natural resource conservation issues.

With minorities now reordering their priorities and seeking to form coalitions with very receptive mainstream national environmental organizations, industry's divisive tactics should soon run aground. Corporations will face much more formidable opponents in terms of political influence, material resources and organizational structure.

The long overdue environmentalist-minority alliance still has obstacles to surmount before it becomes a reality. Some grassroots elements of national environmental groups have shown little interest in focusing on environmental-justice issues. Many in the minority camp remain suspicious of mainstream environmental organizations' composition and intentions. They note that executives of some polluting companies sit on the boards of directors of prominent environmental organizations, whereas minority representation is usually conspicuously absent.

They wonder out loud whether these environmental groups are too elitist and affluent to crusade aggressively against environmental injustice; and they question why the environmental movement doesn't devote more energy to lobbying in behalf of better housing, education and health care for the needy.

The national environmental movement defends itself by asserting that to maximize effectiveness, it must involve the full spectrum of citizenry, including corporate chieftains.

Environmental spokesmen say their organizations' talent search for minorities has intensified in recent years. They add, however, that it has not been very successful because until recently the best and brightest of minority activists have not perceived the environment to be their issue.

If the summit is any indication, these misunderstandings will soon be resolved, and a powerful phalanx will emerge, hopefully capable of erasing environmental injustice, once and for all.

Edward Flattau writes a column on environmental affairs.

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