How One Woman Is Trying to Bring Racial Justice to Environmentalism

Flint, Mich., has exploded into national headlines due to a water contamination crisis that’s devastating its primarily black, low-income residents. The scale of the pollution and the slow action on the issue, which has dragged on for years, illustrates how environmental contamination disproportionately strikes people of color. But interestingly enough, people at the head of the movement are often white, just like the hands lovingly planting trees above.

Though people of color have participated in environmental movements for centuries, whites have traditionally dominated the conversation to the detriment of advocates for communities with less political clout.

Kathy Egland is one of the leaders bridging the gap. After Hurricane Katrina, this NAACP staffer took on the task of explicitly connecting race and environmental justice to build a better world for black communities traditionally underserved by the larger environmental movement.

Marcelo Bonta, another environmental advocate of color, has argued passionately for racial diversity in the movement. He notes that white, mainstream environmentalism can feel inaccessible to communities of color due to a cultural disconnect and differing priorities — something Darryl Fears also highlighted for The Washington Post. 

White environmental advocates tend to concentrate on wilderness conservation. But with growing awareness of pollution problems since the midcentury, they’re also working to drive polluters out of their neighborhoods. While good in theory, campaigns against polluting industries can have serious unintended consequences for low-income people and communities of color. Where do the offending companies often choose to relocate? Right in the middle of communities that don’t have the resources to oppose them.

A classic example arose, in fact, after Katrina, when the cleanup effort generated significant amounts of waste. White communities resisted local disposal, so officials tried to dump the waste in communities of color. A similar problem occurred following the Deepwater Horizon spill.

It should come as no surprise, then, that a landscape of predominantly white environmental leadership coupled with sometimes directly conflicting priorities produces a feeling of alienation among communities of color. That’s not to say that communities of color haven’t been working tirelessly on environmental justice issues — many have in fact specifically been addressing environmental racism.

Non-white communities are more likely to experience health problems because of a disproportionate number of polluting companies and dumps nearby. Residents often cannot afford to relocate or oppose proposals for new environmentally detrimental projects. While their efforts may seem muted to the casual observer, surveys indicate that communities of color care passionately about the environment. Many individuals just don’t occupy the positions of power necessary to provoke real action.

This is where people like Egland come in.

Though Egland was always concerned about the environment, the issue became personal when Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast. She observed serious inequalities when it came to where the subsequent waste was dumped and how resources to support survivors were allocated.

Egland expressed further concern about the fact that the decision-makers involved were mostly white, and she started making some noise. Which isn’t a big surprise from someone with a long history of protesting to draw attention to racial inequality in the United States. By coordinating with the Sierra Club, the chair of the NAACP’s National Board’s Environmental and Climate Justice Program was even able to kick coal-burning power plants out of Gulfport.

Today, Egland remains gravely worried about climate change and its implications for communities of color. She accomplishes critical environmental advocacy through coordination with racial and environmental justice-oriented groups, stressing that these are issues that should matter to both.

This kind of coalition building is critical, as communities of color represent a huge and powerful block of voters and organizers who are often extremely willing to lead the charge on issues they’re passionate about. And uniting black environmental groups with white-majority ones could make for one formidable environmental lobby.

Photo credit: Alex Indigo

35 comments

Rima Goode
Rima Goodeabout a year ago

There is only one race. The Human Race. 'Racism' is a form of prejudice. The word prejudice means to pre-judge something or someone. People who are 'racists' are actually prejudiced against other people of certain skin colors and/or certain ethnic backgrounds, but not their 'race', since there is actually no such thing as different races. I'm not saying that we should ignore the real prejudice in the world and our society against people of certain skin colors and/or certain ethnic backgrounds. I'm saying that we need to stop using the words 'racial', 'racist', and 'racism', because they just perpetuate prejudice on the basis of 'race' which is an arbitrary, made-up concept! The fact is, when we stop using that language, there will be no excuse to use that arbitrary concept to discriminate against people. Some individuals will still pre-judge others based upon their skin color or their ethnicity. But, there is no need to use the word 'race' when addressing these issues. Think about it.

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Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus1 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Ivana D.
Ivana D1 years ago

Tyfs

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Patricia Harris
John Taylor1 years ago

Good news!

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Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara1 years ago

Good for her. Read Toms River by Dan Fagin for a polluter story. Read Indian Country by Peter Matthiessen for multiple polluter stories in minority areas in America. But in many countries, those doing the despoiling are the same colour as those feeling the loss. Read
Money Logging: On the Trail of the Asian Timber Mafia by Lukas Straumann.

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Ricky T.
Ricky T1 years ago

Go Kathy!

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Neville B.
Neville B1 years ago

The poor, the weak, the vulnerable, the different - these are always the victims. The rest is mainly further labelling, but needn't be divisive. We/they can and must stand together, to break the cycles of abuse.

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Fi T.
Past Member 1 years ago

Let's keep the spirit going on

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Sherry Kohn
Sherry K1 years ago

Many thanks to you !

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Veronica B.
Veronica B1 years ago

Very good article.

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