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Race, Values, and the Environment (Part 1/2): why has the environmental movement divided itself along color-lines?

Guest Blogger • Nov 28, 2011

photo taken from vinmarshall's flickr page

by Nicole Loeffler-G​ladstone

Moralistic questions of worth and value contribute to a visible schism between two general categories of environmental groups. On one side we see organizations dedicated to conservation issues: habitat protection, wilderness preservation, protection of endangered animals and plants, etc. On the other we see organizations dedicated to justice issues: access to food in urban communities, our right to clean air and water, the reduction of pesticide use, etc. And it seems that these two hands, which help shape the environmental movement, often function independently without acknowledging that they are pieces of a larger movement.

Environmental activists should not have to ask themselves whether they want to bring an end to environmental crises or value human health and happiness—within what is seemingly our present dichotomy, though, we do indeed ask ourselves to choose.

There are obvious linkages between conservation and justice, not least of which is the idea that all living things deserve dignity, happiness, and respect. If those tenets are taken for granted within the environmental movement, we must then begin to deconstruct the bifurcation of issues we’re seeing, and then question why they have historically split us along racial lines. The same words should be used to describe what is at stake in any environmental struggle, regardless of which “realm” of the environmental movement that issue might seemingly represent.

To that end, immigrant rights should be rapidly welcomed into the environmental movement as a whole, and yet this issue is often pushed to the justice side, where it is left up to community organizations and/or activists-of-color to tackle.

Julian Agyeman, who chairs the Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning department at Tufts University, was quoted in Barry Yeoman’s recent article for Audubon Magazine as saying, “a lot of environmental organizations genuinely think, ‘Look, we’re saving this planet for everybody, so we don’t have to think about equity as a separate issue’.  It’s almost like the last great white social movement.” Based on this racial split, it would certainly seem so. And yet, Yeoman goes on to report that:

“A 2009 national poll (conducted by two firms, one Republican and one Democratic) revealed that 63 percent of African-Americans felt that toxics and pesticides in our food and drinking water were an ‘extremely’ or ‘very’ serious problem, while 61 percent felt the same way about global warming. For Latinos, the numbers were 61 and 55 percent. For whites, they were 38 and 39 percent. Yet despite these numbers, mainstream green groups remain overwhelmingly white.”  (Emphasis added)

The aforementioned fallacy of a “separate” equity issues is clearly illustrated when we look at some examples of how justice and conservation are intertwined. Unsurprisingly, immigrant rights feature strongly in these examples.

According to a recent NRDC study, “one out of two Latinos in the United States lives in counties that frequently violate air pollution standards. Latinos are three times more likely to die from asthma than other racial or ethnic groups.” Jorge Madrid, a research associate at the Center for American Progress is quoted as saying, “Latinos want clean air and a strong economy. We are the fastest growing group of voters in the US, and we need to know our leaders in Washington are fighting to protect our health and grow jobs—those two things are not mutually exclusive.”

Another article by Colorlines mentions that, in spite of multiple warnings from the scientific community, a 40 foot portion of the fence on the Arizona-Mexico border was swept away in heavy rains during August of this year. The fence has been widely criticized for the xenophobia it represents and the human suffering to which it contributes, but it also serves as a blockade for wildlife, cutting down on the range size of many animals including some endangered species.

In this case, obviously, racial justice and environmental justice are inextricably linked.

During the summer of 2010, while the whole country watched the BP oil spill expand to catastrophic proportions, many United States residents flocked to the Gulf Coast looking for jobs associated with oil spill clean-up. These workers risked their health to help restore the Gulf, spending their days in poisoned water and 100 degree heat. Though all of the spill workers contributed to saving as much of the Gulf Coast fisheries as was possible, only some of those workers were targeted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Colorlines also reported that ICE officials targeted two cleanup centers without prior notice, and “rounded up workers, and asked for documentation of their legal status.” ICE officials appeared under the pretense of ensuring “that people who are legally here can compete for those jobs—those people who are having so many problems.”

These examples serve to show how clearly “justice” and “conservation” transcend the boundaries forced upon them by racial splits within the environmental community. In spite of what common sense and political analysis might tell us about their similarities, they remain split apart through fears of changing demographics, a weak economy, and racism.

(Part 2 will address how activists might work to bridge these gaps that have so long divided environmental conservation efforts and environmental justice.)

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