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Developing Working Definitions of Urban Environmental Justice

In October 1991, more than 600 persons from virtually every state in the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico, Central America, and the Marshall Islands gathered in Washington D.C. at the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit. It was a defining moment for the environmental justice movement in the United States. One of the Summit's most important contributions was the adoption of the Principles of Environmental Justice.

Some of the key concepts among these seventeen principles are respect for the earth, freedom from environmental discrimination, the right to a balanced and ethical use of land, self determination, accountability for the production and handling of hazardous materials, the right to participation in decision-making about one's environment, the right to a safe and secure workplace, compensation for damage, restoration of cities in balance with nature, honoring the cultural integrity of neighborhoods, and providing access to a full range of resources, informed consent, and education based on appreciation of diverse cultural perspectives. One outgrowth of the Summit was recognition by a number of delegates and participants that the connections between environmental justice and the urban environment need more systematic attention and treatment.

No more than six months later, the largest urban uprising in the history of this country took place in South Central Los Angeles. The L.A. rebellions were massive tremors on the racial and social seismographs of America. Over a year prior, we at the Commission for Racial Justice predicted that an upheaval like the one that occurred in LA would take place. All rational observers of U.S. affairs said Los Angeles was a crisis waiting to erupt. And it is by no means unique. Most of America's urban areas also are ominously waiting to erupt. We must send a resounding and unambiguous message to the new administration in Washington, D.C., that it ignores this reality at its own peril.

The main thesis of this article is that an environmental justice perspective is needed for understanding America's urban crisis and what should be done about it. Why should people of color be concerned about the urban environment? These are areas where the vast majority of people of color of live. Over fifty of the nation's largest cities have people of color majority populations. At the same time, cities are the most polluted places.

Empirical data on many forms of pollution risk indicate a decidedly strong urban impact. The United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice's landmark 1987 study Toxic Wastes and Race found Memphis, Chicago, Atlanta, St. Louis, Houston, and other metropolitan areas to have the greatest concentrations of hazardous waste sites. Air pollution has given rise to an epidemic of childhood asthma and other respiratory diseases. Nearly half (49%) of African American children living in the inner city suffer from lead poisoning; for families earning $6,000 or less the figure rises to 68%. As underscored by the proposed Environmental Justice Act of 1992, these hazards do not occur alone; they overlap to create a potent but undetermined set of synergistic health risks. Activist Hazel Johnson reported that there are at least 201 hazardous chemicals being emitted into her environment in Chicago's South Side.

Given these intuitively obvious connections between environmental justice and the urban environment, why have these connections yet to be systematically made? Prior to the Summit, the definitions and symbols of environmentalism clearly did not speak to people of color or the poor. They simply ignored the fact that "people of color also are an endangered species." For example, Eleanor Holmes Norton talks about how during the efforts to make the Potomac River pristine, the Anacostia River on the other side of the tracks in Washington, D.C., was long left forgotten. In recent years, there has been a growing awareness in people of color communities about the threat of environmental contamination, which has spawned a transformation in thinking and action. The Summit's invitational message thus continued "environmental issues afford us the opportunity to address many of the critical issues of the decade, including unemployment, community and urban development, energy and defense policy, resource exploitation, public health, and self-determination. We believe that our transformation in thinking will ultimately play a pivotal role in the redefinition of the environment."

Disposable Communities: The Urban Wasteland

Halfway across the continent lies a city which is virtually 100 percent African American. It has no obstetric services, no garbage collection, few jobs, raw sewage regularly backing up into homes and schools, and the nation's highest rate of childhood asthma deaths. East St. Louis, Illinois, lies directly adjacent to Monsanto Chemical, Pfizer Chemical, Aluminum Ore, Big River Zinc, and other industrial plants. Most of these plants have their own incorporated townships, where no one lives and which are no more than legal fiction to provide shelters and immunity from the jurisdiction of East St. Louis. Raw sewage often floods the streets, parking lots, and playgrounds. Garbage is burnt in backyard lots. Lead is found in playgrounds at an astonishing 10,000 parts per million. Children play directly downstream from the chemical and metal processing plants, leading to the highest rate of childhood asthma in the nation. Children also play in the aptly named Dead Creek, which received toxic discharges in the past and now smokes by day and glows on moonlit nights. It gained notoriety for instances of spontaneous combustion created by friction when children rode their bicycles through it. The St. Louis Post Dispatch described East St. Louis as "America's Soweto."

The metropolitan ecosystem, such as those in Los Angeles and East St. Louis, can be understood as having three overlapping subsystems: the natural or biophysical environment, the manufactured or built environment, and the social environment. In most of the nation's urban areas, like Los Angeles and East St. Louis, these can be described as wastelands. Elements of the biophysical wasteland include polluted rivers and water supplies, air in constant violation of federal health standards, toxic emissions from nearby factories and waste incinerators, etc. Elements of the built wasteland include a mounting trash problem, antiquated water, sewage, and mass transit systems, bridges, roads, and an infrastructure that is old and in disrepair. Elements of the social environment include crime, less than minimal education, drugs, violence, residential apartheid, racism in housing, and health care delivery, etc.

South Central Los Angeles and East St. Louis are examples of the central role of racism in determining the nature of the urban environment. They are prima facie evidence of the growing significance of race in American society. An environmental justice perspective requires that we see these various subsystems holistically. It demands that we understand the evolution of these interrelated subsystems from a multi-racial and multicultural perspective, keeping in mind the global and historical contexts from which all people of color must necessarily proceed if our integrity as distinct peoples is to be preserved. From both within the framework of each culture, be it Native American, African American, Latino American, or Asian Pacific American, as well as their interconnections to each other, we begin to draw some fundamental historical assumptions based upon a history of 500 years of colonial oppression, where the exploitation of land and natural resources was intrinsically intertwined with the exploitation of people of color. This became an underlying assumption of the Principles of Environmental Justice. Hence, the urban crisis in 1992, at the end of the twentieth century, is very much the byproduct of the environmental racism which began in 1492, at the end of the fifteenth century.

Today, Los Angeles is a city of contradictions. It is one of the world's most multiracial and multicultural cities, but at the same time one of its most segregated. It is a car and tinsel town, famous for its never ending freeways and show business glitter. L.A. has the worst air pollution in the nation, with the most grievous impact falling on communities of color. Its neighborhoods are breeding grounds for unemployment, poverty, drugs, hopelessness, and rage. Beginning in the 1930s a consortium of auto, rubber and oil companies destroyed public transportation and made the city dependent on the automobile. South Central L.A. did not always have the urban decay it now suffers. Unemployment in South Central Los Angeles is no mystery when one realizes that not too long ago a General Motors plant there employed 4,000 workers. How ironic that GM saw fit to close shop in a city it made dependent on the automobile and go overseas for cheaper labor and greater profits.

Other great urban centers like Chicago, New York, and Detroit were destinations for Post-World War II streams of African Americans migrating from the deep South seeking employment and economic opportunity. Racism and segregation have turned this odyssey into a bitter, dead-end search. The inner city communities into which they were forced have turned out like East St. Louis, the only difference being that many inner city communities could not be politically disowned. Once a thriving transportation center which invited African Americans for purposes of union breaking, East St. Louis is now described as a "repository for a nonwhite population now regarded as expendable."

Certainly one must wonder exactly what is the psychological damage being perpetuated in inner city youth when they compare their "environment" with the resplendent images normally associated with the American landscape. One author chose to call these comparisons "savage inequalities." These comparisons are being made daily and, whether we realize it or not, begin when our youth are barely out of infancy. All they have to do is turn on the TV set.

People of color live in communities not only targeted for the disposal of environmental toxins and hazardous waste but in fact live in fully disposable communities to be thrown away when the populations they hold have outlived their usefulness. This is the logical product of the environmental racism now practiced for 500 years, i.e., "When they throw out the garbage, they leave people in it, too."

I submit that this offers a way of looking at new urban centers now thriving, fed by massive waves of immigrants from Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, who are drawn to fill the piecework economy of urban Chinatown garment sweatshops with working conditions no better than those which gave rise to the Triangle Square Fire or the colonias, Mexican border towns now best known for local clusters of chemically-caused anencephaly, babies born without brains. Matamoros, Mexico, just across the Texas border, "is dominated by U.S.-owned companies that came south for cheaper labor, favorable trade rules and lax enforcement of environmental laws. Today, Matamoros is an ugly sprawl of industrial plants and shacks housing Mexican workers. Its open sewers contain toxic wastes and human refuse. Its factories spew fumes and leak chemicals." No doubt the already low value of the newfound pool of cheap labor will soon deflate when they too have outlived their usefulness in economically highly precarious industries.

In many respects, entire communities like South Central Los Angeles and entire cities like East St. Louis are more environmentally degraded and pose greater health threats to their inhabitants than most sites presently on the Superfund National Priority List. Congress formulated the concept of a hazardous waste “Superfund” as a response to the tens of thousands of the nation’s abandoned and/or orphaned hazardous waste sites.

Superfund notwithstanding, none of the present environmental legislation comes anywhere close to addressing the environmental catastrophe called “Urban America.” Certainly, one of the challenges of progressive lawyers is to develop a body of law capable of addressing the challenges above. We look to the legal profession to play significant roles in helping society shape definitions of right and wrong, fairness, equal protection and equity, standards of conduct, appropriate causes for action, justice and injustice.

Organizing and Movement Building

Urban communities of color never had the luxury of organizing around single issues. We must turn this into a strong point for organizing because if our goals are to organize for ecologically and economically sustainable communities, we must be able to make the interconnections between different issues. This is the value of an environmental justice perspective.

The rebuilding of our cities must be done in a way which empowers the community. This presupposes "the right to participate as equal partners at every level of decision-making including assessment needs, planning, implementation, enforcement and evaluation." (Principle #7) In addition, it presupposes "honoring the cultural integrity of all our communities" (Principle #12). Thus, rebuilding our cities must be accomplished with a conscious and systematic restructuring of the relationships within the metropolis as well as regionally, nationally and internationally. Urban reconstruction should be a vehicle for socially and economically disenfranchised residents to organize for public health, education and safety, meet basic human needs, and develop their potential as productive human beings.

Here are ten short prescriptions, by no means comprehensive, to get us started:

1. Understand the value of cities as unique reservoirs of racial and cultural diversity and, therefore, the gateway to a world where international economic interdependence, cultural exchange, and technological cooperation is more and more important. Cities are the key to the multiracial and multicultural renaissance needed in the 21st century America where European Americans will become the numerical minority.

2. Use the urban environmental crisis as an opportunity for job creation and sustainable economic development. There is much work to be done, including the remediation of lead poisoned buildings, cleaning up parks and developing new recreation spaces. The decaying infrastructure is an obvious way of putting people to work. Use the garbage crisis to promote labor intensive environmental cleanup programs such as recycling.

3. Make sustainability of the social and physical environment the central issue in all areas of development planning; rebuilding must strengthen the role of inner city institutions in metropolitan and regional decision-making. Economic growth must rely on local resources, talents, insights and efforts. Community development corporations and local enterprise should play a bigger role than outside real estate interests. New patterns of development should stress cooperation and investment leading to equitable sustained growth which adds to the value of the community rather than frenzied competition based on the production and distribution of empty consumer goods of marginal long term value. Dissent must be turned to a critique of monopolistic power relations and the creation of markets which can mutually benefit rather than exploit.

4. Promote greater reliance on sustainable sources of energy and energy-efficient modes of transportation.

5. Establish activist oriented urban environmental research centers based on the local community made up of consortiums of academic institutions, labor, small business, churches, and the public schools; every idea, every hopeful experiment ought to have a place where it can be warmly received, receive critical technical support and thorough examination, and where every success, big or little, can be documented, promoted and replicated.

6. Promote links among urban areas through joint strategies, so that the political weight of several or a network of cities can be brought to bear, so that municipalities can become the pacesetters in environmental policymaking.

7. Enlist, train and support a large army of women to do community education and mobilization to get environmental issues addressed and cleanups completed. We must recognize who have always been our leaders in the trenches.

8. Identify several urban based symbols of environmental justice action in every city. Our people must have the readily available examples of action, and success around which to coalesce.

9. Make environmental education a part of the core curricula of the public school system starting from kindergarten and pre-school, focusing on the environment right outside the school doorsteps. Establish special schools devoted to environmental studies, as has been done in New York City. Use environmental education as a vehicle to promote through real life experiences an understanding of science, technology and the issues inherent in environmental policy-making.

10. Enlist youth through active participation, especially in cultural activities to express for us a sense of reality and their visions for a humane and sustainable environment. We clearly must begin to take on the task of offering our own visions for the future. No longer can we allow others to define for us what our futures should be.

The Challenge for the Future

It is too often said that "without a vision, the people perish." Our task is to develop the visions and understandings which will effectively meet the challenges of Los Angeles and East St. Louis: to revive, rebuild, and renew our inner cities. Environmental justice activists, scholars, doctors and lawyers can make a special and unique contribution to that vision, and therefore you have a special obligation. This nation needs a comprehensive urban environmental agenda which includes jobs and justice, equity and opportunity, and most importantly bears the stamp of our visions. To achieve this, we must mobilize all our communities, not just those in the inner cities.


IMF Riot and Urban Problems       ?õ¬?       Vol. 3 No. 4/Vol. 4 No. 1      ?õ¬?       Winter/Spring 1993


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