Pollution doesn't discriminate

June 23, 1995

"Environmental racism" isn't a new expression. The Rev. Ben Chavis, former director of the NAACP, first used the term in 1982 to protest the location of a North Carolina toxic waste landfill. Since then numerous speakers have attempted to stoke the fires of activism by calling pollution in the inner cities the next civil rights issue.

It's true that both industrialists and governments have typically put smoke-belching factories, air-polluting highways and waste-leaking landfills in communities where the people are least able to fight them.

Since many of these poor neighborhoods are largely populated by blacks, Hispanics or Native Americans, claims of racism in site selection appear valid. But that doesn't mean narrowly defining pollution as another race relations problem is going to make it any easier to solve.

A 1987 United Church of Christ report concluded that people of color are twice as likely to live in polluted areas, three times as likely to live near one of the nation's largest toxic waste dumps and 50 percent more likely to die from exposure to hazardous materials outside the home.

Such statistics led to expectations that President Clinton would elevate the Environmental Protection Agency to cabinet status after his election in 1992 and join the push for "environmental justice." But deficit reduction has forced the administration to instead consider which departments it can cut, not beef up.

Against such a backdrop and considering the current movement against all sorts of race-based remedies broadly labeled as "affirmative action," those who would combat "environmental racism" might do better taking a more-inclusive approach.

There's no denying that past laws and custom prevented minorities of any economic status from living in areas other than those most frequently chosen by the most prolific polluters. But keep in mind that while polluters might discriminate, pollution does not. No segment of the population is unaffected by it. In fact, studies indicate only a slightly smaller percentage of whites -- 54 percent compared to 57 percent of blacks and Hispanics -- live near toxic waste sites.

Cleaning up the country need not require the divisiveness that can come with attempts to apply racially distinct solutions to the problem. The nation would be better served by a stronger alliance between environmentalists and civil rights groups, which have cooperated too little in the past.

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