Black Activists Invented Environmental Justice

environmental justice

Sandwiched along the North Carolina and Virginia border, Warren County is about as rural as they come. Founded in 1779, the 444-square-mile region was previously rife with antebellum-period tobacco and cotton plantations before textile mills took over in the late 1800s. But, thanks to a landfill and a group of determined Black activists, Warren County is known for one very important thing: it’s largely regarded as the birthplace of the modern environmental justice movement.

It all started back in the fall of 1982. Afton, North Carolina—a predominantly Black community—was deemed a good spot for a hazardous waste landfill. The landfill was chosen as a dumping ground for 60,000 tons of PCB-contaminated soil (also known as polychlorinated biphenyls, PCBs are incredibly toxic industrial compounds). 

Understandably, the community was upset. So, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) organized a huge protest. Activists converged on the landfill to make their voices heard, resulting in more than 500 arrests. The protesters were not successful in their mission of preventing the dumping of toxic waste in the landfill. But they did garner national attention for environmental injustices, galvanizing the environmental movement of today.

The environment: A human rights issue

Just like the refugee crisis, human trafficking, and gender equality, the climate crisis is also a human rights issue. The human right to a healthy environment is outlined in more than 100 constitutions around the world, according to the UN Environment Programme. Although a number of states have adopted constitutional environmental protection measures, the US—as a whole—has not. 

However, even with these measures in place, their lax enforcement can lead to myriad human rights violations. These run the gamut from air and water pollution to sanitation issues. For example, the impacts of industrial gold mining on the Indigenous people of Guyana, South America—which include water contamination and deforestation—is rampant despite the fact that the region has constitutional provisions for a healthy environment.

Environment-related human rights violations were also evidenced in the small town of Hinkley, California. The 1992 case, which was dramatized in the 2000 film Erin Brockovich, saw Brockovich—a legal clerk with no background in law—almost single-handedly build a case against Pacific Gas & Electric Company for contaminating the town’s groundwater. The case resulted in the largest payout of a direct-action lawsuit at the time: $333 million.

Similar instances of environmental injustices are prevalent across the country: Flint, Michigan’s water crisis; the oil refineries of Cancer Alley, Louisiana; the dumping of coal ash in Uniontown, Alabama; air pollution in New York City’s the Bronx…the list goes on. And while they may differ geographically, all of these areas have one thing in common: they’re all predominantly BIPOC and low-income communities.

Elsa Mengistu, a 20-year-old activist who’s worked with a number of environmental organizations, including  Zero Hour, Ocean Heroes Bootcamp, and Generation Green, says the placement of these polluters in minority communities is not an accident. 

“The Bronx is composed of predominantly Brown, Black, Latino, and immigrant populations. These are the most vulnerable communities. And while they can advocate for themselves, they’re not given the resources nor the platform to do it in a way that is as effective,” Mengistu explains. “This place has one of the highest rates of childhood asthma because polluters get away with doing it in the Bronx, whereas they wouldn’t be able to in Manhattan.”

warren county protest
Warren County is largely regarded as the birthplace of the modern environmental justice movement. | Bettmann/Getty Images

How environmental racism targets communities of color

Communities of color are 75 percent more likely to be located in highly polluted areas, according to a 2020 report by Princeton. These areas include toxic waste sites, factory farms, landfills, and other industrial facilities.

According to a 2018 study by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), people of color breathe in more particulate air pollution than their white counterparts. As a result, minority communities are more likely to die from environmental causes and suffer from pollution-related health issues, such as lung disease and asthma. The Princeton report details that 13.4 percent of Black children suffer from the latter, compared to only 7.3 percent of white children. And more than one million Black Americans are at risk of cancer “above EPA’s level of concern” as a result of air pollution. 

Communities of color are also more likely to suffer from climate change-related extreme weather events like heat waves, as well as environmental degradation.

The reason that these communities are targeted for the placement of highly-pollutive slaughterhouses, dairy farms, factories, and the like is simple: profit. The land in these areas is generally cheap, making them a more lucrative option for corporations. Similarly, subsidized housing has also been developed in areas with pollutive facilities because the land is inexpensive. (Not to mention, the practice of redlining barred many minority households from obtaining housing loans.) 

A 2020 report by the Shrine Center on Poverty Law found that 70 percent of hazardous waste sites are located within one mile of public housing. “Environmental racism has played a central role in this devastation,” the report’s authors wrote. They note that laws and policies like the US’s allocation of federal housing assistance have allowed minority communities to be in close proximity to environmental toxins. “Because housing built for Black and Brown households has often been built in direct proximity to contaminated land,” the authors explain, “these families have been disproportionately exposed to these health and environmental threats.”

Wawa Gatheru environmental justice
Activists like Wawa Gatheru are bridging the divide between environmental and racial justice. | Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

Sparking the environmental justice movement

The environmental justice movement didn’t arise purely out of passion; it was a means of survival for BIPOC and low-income communities. Of course, environmental efforts were underway prior to the Warren County protest. Environmental nonprofits were certainly around long before 1982. However, they largely ignored the link between racial disparities and the environment. 

Some of the earliest groups include the Sierra Club, which was founded in 1892, and the National Audubon Society, which was formed 13 years later. But these organizations mainly championed issues like the conservation of wildlife, biodiversity, and the oceans. Equity and diversity were absent among the organizations; board members were mostly white. Put simply: Environmental justice wasn’t on their radar.

“Warren County spurred greater political debate and became a model for communities across the nation,” explained Eileen McGurty, professor at John Hopkins University. “The specific circumstances of the Warren County events shaped the formation of the environmental justice movement and influenced contemporary environmentalism.”

Following the 1982 protest, a domino effect occurred in relation to environmental justice. A slew of studies into the connection between race and hazardous waste sites were conducted, including the 1987 Toxic Waste and Race report. The study found that race was the most prominent factor in hazardous waste facility placement. At that time, it found that 60 percent of Black and Hispanic people lived near toxic waste sites.

In 1990, 100 prominent Black leaders tackled the issue of race among mainstream conservation groups. Spearheaded by the SouthWest Organizing Project, a grassroots advocacy group founded in 1980, a 12-page letter was sent to the largest environmental groups, known as the “Big 10,” which included the Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Nature Conservancy. 

Known as the SWOP letter, it addressed concerns of “racist and exclusionary practices,” including not diversifying staff members and lack of inclusion when making public policies. ​​“Racism is a root cause of your inaction around addressing environmental problems in our communities,” the authors penned. The result? Many of the groups cleaned up their act, hiring people of color and enacting environmental justice initiatives.

The SWOP letter also gave rise to the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, held in 1991. More than 1,000 people—largely Black, Latino, Native, Pacific Islander, and Asian American activists—gathered in Washington, D.C. to discuss the undeniable link between race and environmental injustices. The 17 principles of environmental justice were adopted, which laid the framework for many federal and state environmental policies today.

One year later, the Office of Environmental Equity was established as part of the EPA, which credited the landfill protests as “a watershed event that led to the environmental equity movement of the 1980s.” And in 1994, the Clinton administration issued an executive order making environmental justice public policy.

The wave of environmental justice activism continues today. Like Mengistu, Wawa Gatheru is another grassroots activist who’s bridging the divide between environmental and racial justice. The 22-year-old Rhodes Scholar and founder of BlackGirlEnvironmentalist, a supportive ​​community of Black girls, womxn, and non-binary environmentalists, regularly uses her platform of 24,000 Instagram followers to speak up about environmental racism.

“As a Black woman in the environmental field, I have often felt out of place—as one of the only faces of color in my major, in my navigation of environmental ethics, and in my struggle to find representation in the field,” she said. “However, it is precisely this discomfort that has revealed the crucial nature of my participation in this movement.”

Louisiana kids playing on playground
Communities of color are 75 percent more likely to be located in highly polluted areas. | Andrew Lichtenstein/Getty Images

Facing roadblocks on the path to environmental justice

In January, the EPA unveiled new plans for advancing environmental justice, including investing more than $600,000 in air pollution monitoring equipment to measure toxins in Cancer Alley. The 85-mile stretch of land along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge hosts more than 150 petrochemical plants.

But despite this progress, all of the aforementioned statistics on highly-pollutive industries among minority and low-income communities and the resulting health issues still stand. More is required on the environmental justice front.

According to a 2019 report by the UN Environment Programme, despite a nearly 40 percent increase in environmental laws since the 1970s, a lack of enforcement remains the biggest challenge in tackling the bulk of environmental issues, from pollution to global warming.

“This compelling new report solves the mystery of why problems such as pollution, declining biodiversity, and climate change persist despite the proliferation of environmental laws in recent decades,” explained David Boyd, Associate Professor at the University of British Columbia and UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and environment. “Unless the environmental rule of law is strengthened, even seemingly rigorous rules are destined to fail and the fundamental human right to a healthy environment will go unfulfilled.”

According to Nathaniel Stinnett, the executive director of the Environmental Voter Project, a nonpartisan nonprofit that mobilizes non-voting environmentalists to be consistent voters, political leaders are also stretched too thin. “Every politician has a limited amount of political capital to spend on a small number of issues,” he explains. “The environmental movement simply doesn’t have enough political power to pressure politicians into leading on climate and environmental justice.”

Pressure to pass such laws, Stinnett adds, comes by way of the politicians’ constituents. “We need to start flooding the polls in every local, state, and federal election until politicians are forced to lead on environmental issues,” he says. 

Discriminatory practices can make it challenging for people of color to vote. | Pacific Press/Getty Images

What do voting rights have to do with climate justice?

But the ability to vote doesn’t come easy for all. 

Since they’re most impacted by environmental injustices, people of color are more likely to prioritize environmental issues when voting, explains Stinnett. “Unfortunately, voter suppression laws make it much harder for these victims of environmental injustice to cast a ballot,” he says.

Despite the passage of the Voter Rights Act in 1965, which outlawed discriminatory practices for voting like literacy tests, some states have passed measures that still make it difficult for certain groups of people to vote. “Contrary to many stereotypes, present-day environmentalists are not just wealthy, white suburbanites,” says Stinnett. “In fact, the opposite is true: today’s environmentalists are disproportionately people of color, young people, and people who make less than $50,000 per year, which are the same three groups that are always targeted by voter suppression efforts.”

When voting restrictions make it harder for these groups to vote, it also disproportionately drains power from the environmental movement, which in turn makes it even harder for people of color and poorer people to fight back against environmental injustice in their communities, according to Stinnett.

But organizations like the Environmental Voter Project are fighting back, galvanizing voters to make their voices heard. And young activists and thought leaders of color are gallantly carrying the passed torch. As the next generation of advocates, changemakers like Mengistu and Gatheru are intent on safeguarding the future of the planet and also rectifying the past by increasing awareness about the history of environmental racism—because with knowledge comes change.