In North Carolina, scientists from the Environmental Protection Agency have found a "stable and negative association" between poor birth outcomes among women and their exposure to air pollution. That's pretty much common knowledge, if not common sense, no matter what state or country you look at. But the EPA scientists also noted that "more socially disadvantaged populations are at a greater risk," even when subjected to the same levels of air pollutants.
Translation: If you have the misfortune of being born poor and black in North Carolina, you’re more likely to arrive in this world underweight and undernourished, on top of being underprivileged. Polluted air only makes your situation worse.
My Momma got cancer in her breast, Don't ask me why I'm motherfucking stressed, things done changed
-- The Notorious B.I.G., in “Things Done Changed” from the album Ready to Die
Yesterday marked the 17th anniversary of the death of “Brooklyn’s finest” hip hop artist, The Notorious B.I.G., a.k.a. Biggie Smalls, who was gunned down in Los Angeles when he was just 24 years old.
Biggie’s murder seemed part of some self-fulfilling prophecy that God perhaps took too seriously. His inaugural 1994 album, Ready to Die, is a series of tone poems illustrating the kind of drug war gunplay that would eventually claim him as a homicide statistic. The Brooklyn rapper imagines multiple scenarios under which his death might occur: In a shootout with cops while pursuing pathways out of poverty that President Obama would not approve of (“Gimme The Loot”); killed by jealous acquaintances who want to rob him for his riches (“Warning”); or, by his own finger on the trigger (“Suicidal Thoughts”).
Most of my friends (and Biggie fans in general, I’m sure) took the album as pure artistic liberty, no different than Martin Scorsese’s cinematic canon on mafia life. We no sooner thought that Biggie would actually die in a shootout than we did Robert De Niro would get shot like his character Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. When Big, whose birth name was Christopher Wallace, was actually killed by gunfire, it stunk too much of life imitating art.
But of all the ways Big imagined himself dying on that album, none of them reflected the real climate of death that existed in Brooklyn at the time, or even today. Deaths for African Americans in Brooklyn usually look less like Wallace's murder and more like his mother's life. When he rapped about his Momma having breast cancer, that was true. Voletta Wallace survived two bouts with the deadly disease, in both cases proving that she was not yet ready to die.
I’m glad to see that 12 Years a Slave won a few well-deserved Oscars Sunday night, including best picture and best adapted screenplay. Those who’ve been following me know that I used this film as one of the starting points for my blog, and as a lens for examining the intersection between environmentalism and social justice. I’ve been curious if there were others who saw in the movie the same crimes against nature I saw, along with the crimes against black people.
The film includes scenes of enslaved Africans hacking away at dense fields of sugarcane stalks, and chopping away trees in the plush forests of Louisiana, all at whip- and gunpoint, and all in efforts to expand the plantation state. This, to me, made it clear that director Steve McQueen was trying to show not only how slavery exploited and devastated African Americans, but also how it did the same to the American environment. He said as much when describing his cinematic vision: “The story is about the environment, and how individuals have to make sense of it, how we locate the self in events.”
McQueen drew his inspiration from the book on which the film was based: The memoir of Solomon Northup, an African American born free but sold into slavery. And as it turns out, there were many people during Northup’s time who were making the same observations about how slavery was wrecking the nation racially, physically, and biologically. Among them was Henry David Thoreau, the 19th-century naturalist and political philosopher.
Some time around 1986, Vernice Miller-Travis was in her home in West Harlem watching her favorite movie, Claudine, when she noticed something familiar. In the movie, James Earl Jones’ character, Roop, a New York City sanitation worker, is at the end of his daily garbage run and his truck is headed to the transfer station. That station -- the Marine Transfer Station on the Hudson River -- was right near Miller-Travis’ house on 135th St. Along with the North River Sewage Treatment Center, also near her home, it was the reason she and her neighbors smelled an unmistakable funk all …
In 1992, Clarice Gaylord was working in the human resources office at the Environmental Protection Agency when she got the call to head the agency’s newly minted Office of Environmental Equity -- later named the Office of Environmental Justice. The office, created by President George H. W. Bush’s EPA chief, Bill Reilly, was the federal government’s first serious attempt at addressing the problem of pollution falling most harshly on communities of color and low income.
Gaylord, who holds a PhD in zoology, had worked throughout the 1980s as a health science administrator at the National Cancer Institute, the National Institutes of Health, and then as director of the EPA’s research grants program before she wound up in the agency’s human resources office. The HR post was somewhat of a demotion, she said, that happened due to racism. But it proved fortuitous for her: When she became director of the environmental justice office, she used those personnel skills to expand the diversity of EPA’s staff, even as she helped develop mechanisms for how the EPA could better protect communities of color.
She did this primarily by connecting residents of overburdened communities directly with science and public health officials in the federal government. Gaylord also established the first National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, which brought grassroots activists together from around the nation to coach the agency on how to integrate environmental justice (EJ) into its policies and thinking. She was the director of the Office of Environmental Justice for five years, ending with an office made stronger when President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 12898, requiring all federal agencies to incorporate EJ strategies into their plans.
I spoke with Gaylord recently from her home in California about how she was able to develop an office that by many measures was destined to fail, given the low support for social justice matters within the EPA at the time.
Since 1928, the Hampton Avenue Truss Bridge in Greenville, S.C., helped connect the predominantly African American, low-income residents of the Southernside community with the grocery stores, pharmacies, and public buses on the other side. But the state demolished the bridge, which was in poor condition, in 2012 -- a severance that means Southernside is now “likely to die,” says civil rights attorney Allison Riggs, because “quite frankly, there are just no economic generators on that side to keep it alive.”
Southernside residents, who were never consulted on the bridge removal, now have two options for reaching the rest of the city: Walk across the active Norfolk Southern Railway tracks (which the truss bridge once spanned), or take the Pete Hollis Blvd highway -- a dangerous option for those without cars. Meanwhile, the more affluent, white Greenville denizens can get back and forth across the city without the same burdens.
The community has literally been left on the wrong side of the tracks.
Today marks the 20th anniversary of President Clinton signing Executive Order 12898, a landmark for the environmental justice movement. The day is recognized as the moment that the federal government finally began taking seriously the racial disparities created by some of its own actions with regards to permits for polluting factories, as well as transportation systems, energy production, and natural resources conservation.
Not every president gave environmental justice the same respect. President George H. W. Bush gave the issue some office space. George W. Bush ignored it altogether.
The Obama administration has worked to restore some of the order’s powers to compel federal agencies to consider the race- and class-based impacts of permitting and rulemaking decisions. Lisa Jackson, the first African American female chief of the Environmental Protection Agency, made environmental justice a priority. Her successor, Gina McCarthy, has pledged to do the same. Obama also reinstated the Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice, which was created by Clinton’s order but went stale under W. Bush. The group includes representatives of 17 federal agencies and the White House, all of whom pledged in 2010 to integrate EJ principles into their work.
Still, we have a long way to go. That much was evident when Obama announced his Climate Action Plan last year with little nod to the EJ framework that identifies racial and economic disparities.
Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to attend the “Moral March” in Raleigh, N.C., a civil rights march for progressive policies that’s happened every February since 2007. The rally is organized by the Forward Together movement and the Historic Thousands on Jones Street People’s Assembly (aka “HKonJ”), a coalition of hundreds of social justice organizations covering a wide swath of issues including labor, immigration, education, economic justice, voting rights, criminal justice, and environmental justice.
The march, attended this year by an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 people, is probably the best example in the nation of a statewide, multi-racial coalition that has prioritized promoting the intersectional plight of civil rights, politics, economy, and the environment in America. The images in this post should give you a picture of just how impressively diverse in terms of race, age, and areas of interest the marchers were.
Impoverished communities are often pushed to the "wrong side of the tracks" -- sometimes literally. There are ways to address that kind of segregation, but here’s one that is sure to end badly: Push the railroad tracks further into the ’hood, carving up a community already suffering from poverty and neglect.
That’s exactly what the state of Louisiana is considering in New Orleans. State transportaiton planners are considering a plan that would relocate a major rail line from the wealthy, suburban parish of Old Metairie to its neighboring lower income community of Hollygrove. The $750 million New Orleans Rail Gateway plan is being pursued by railroad companies and state regulators who have stated that the so-called “Middle Belt” option through Hollygrove might be their best option.
Lil' Wayne probably wouldn't approve of this freight line carving through the community where he grew up. His former neighbors surely don’t. Residents of Hollygrove and surrounding neighborhoods have voiced their displeasure loudly in recent weeks over the railroad plan, worried that the rapidly expanding rail system will usher tons of poisonous chemicals and noise through their communities.
The overarching goals of the New Orleans Rail Gateway Plan are ones that most can agree with in principle. It seeks to make long overdue improvements to the existing Rail Gateway line in order to reduce the excessive traffic idling it currently causes. Right now, cars in the area experience over 112 hours of traffic delays daily due to rail lines that cross roads. Improvements would also clear the way for better emergency evacuation routes during hurricanes and floods.
But for locals, it reeks of NIMBYism -- yet another proposal to moving undesirable things from the backyards of well-oiled and -protected suburbs to the marginalized communities in the city.
I woke up early on my born day; I'm 20, it's a blessing The essence of adolescence leaves my body, now I'm fresh and My physical frame is celebrated cause I made it One quarter through life, some Godly-like thing created
-- Nas, in “Life’s a Bitch,” 1994
If you're a hip hop head, there's no way you can talk about 1994 without bringing up Nas’s magnum opus, Illmatic. There’s perhaps no album that better illustrates America's decaying urban recesses (although I hear Pete Seeger was brilliant on this note as well) and the thoughts of a young, black man trying to make sense of his smoke-and-smog-filled environment. Fortunately, in 1994 there was an army of foot soldiers committed to demanding that government officials do something about these decomposing hoods.
That army was the environmental justice movement, and next week its members celebrate the 20th anniversary of President Bill Clinton signing their magnum opus: Executive Order 12898, which requires all federal agencies to consider impacts on people of color in their regulations and rulemaking. That resolution was the result of a groundswell of Native American, Latino, Asian American, and African American public health advocates and grassroots organizers around the country who were, as their often sung battle cry went, “sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
Brentin Mock is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist who writes regularly for Grist about environmental justice issues and the connections between environmental policy, race, and politics. Follow him on Twitter at @brentinmock.