Charles Graham approaches the front porch of a home perched a block up the hill from his school, Benjamin Franklin High, in South Baltimore. From that porch, you can see the school, and in the background, a row of chemical plants and coal transfer stations that provide most of the jobs here. The skyline envisages a school-to-polluting-plant pipeline -- a line Graham hopes to rise above by urging cleaner energy projects in this place he calls home.
The 17-year-old environmental activist knocks on the front door and is greeted by Winston Bower, a longtime resident who looks old enough to be Charles’s grandfather. “Do you know about the incinerator they’re building less than a mile away?” Graham asks him.
Bower says he read about it in a newsletter circulating around the neighborhood and doesn’t approve of it: “It’ll just be polluting us even more than it already is around here.”
Nelson Mandela, who died yesterday, is best known for his fight against South African apartheid. But his long walk to freedom also included steps toward solving this mammoth problem called climate change. He envisioned a world where all people are able to live a fully dignified life, with clean air to breathe and clean water to drink -- and where poor countries are not left with the repercussions of rich nation's dirty ways.
Six years ago, Mandela founded The Elders, a cross-cultural group of leaders from across the globe, including former President Jimmy Carter and former United Nations Chief Kofi Annan, to forge human rights-based solutions to worldwide problems. One of the group's top priorities is climate justice, which is not only about reducing greenhouse gas emisssions, but also about ensuring the protection of those people and regions most vulnerable to the worst of climate change’s impacts.
Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish provocateur who loves to pick fights with the climate movement, argues in the New York Times this week that what people in developing nations -- or as he called them, “the poor” -- really want is cheap, dirty, fossil fuels to help them reach prosperity. Poor folks, he says, could get rich off of coal if the West would just get out the way. It's part of an ongoing conversation that has stymied international climate talks, about how wealthy countries have gotten rich on fossil fuels, and now want poor countries to help clean up the mess.
Lomborg uses South Africa as his test:
The last time the World Bank agreed to help finance construction of a coal-fired power plant, in South Africa in 2010, the United States abstained from a vote approving the deal. The Obama administration expressed concerns that the project would “produce significant greenhouse gas emissions.” But as South Africa’s finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, explained at the time in The Washington Post, “To sustain the growth rates we need to create jobs, we have no choice but to build new generating capacity — relying on what, for now, remains our most abundant and affordable energy source: coal.”
We’ll put aside the fact that the last time, or rather the first time the Dutch came up with a prosperity scheme for Africa it involved a vicious slave trade that put the continent on a path to poverty it’s yet to fully recover from. Africans, not Lomborg, are the people to determine what Africans need. And while Gordhan, speaking for finance, may have said his country needed coal in 2010, the following year during the COP 17 climate negotiations in Durban, faith leaders came together declaring that [PDF] “South Africa must stand with Africa -- not big polluters."
It’s bad enough that someone thought it was a good idea to build a trash incinerator in one of the most air-polluted areas in Baltimore. But the New York-based company Energy Answers also wants to burn garbage near two schools, including an elementary -- and the state of Maryland seems poised to let it happen.
Here's the dirty truth: Despite landmark reports about the dangers of placing facilities that pollute the air near schools, most notably USA Today’s 2008 series, “The Smokestack Effect,” companies are still allowed to blast asthma- and cancer-causing agents where kids with developing lungs gather to develop their brains.
An eleventh-hour legal settlement has stopped the U.S. Supreme Court from gutting a legal standard that is pivotal to civil rights and environmental justice law. But it only lives to fight another day.
The settlement wraps up a case called Mount Holly Citizens in Action v. Township of Mount Holly, which was scheduled for oral arguments before the Supreme Court in December. (I wrote about the case earlier this month.) It involved a neighborhood of mostly low-income, black and Latino residents in New Jersey who were challenging an eminent domain-driven redevelopment plan, arguing that it was uprooting dozens of people of color in a disproportionate manner compared to white residents.
The case was built on a Fair Housing Act claim that prohibits “disparate impact” in zoning plans. The disparate impact clause has protected African Americans for decades after cities found ways around desegregation laws by basically zoning and pricing black residents out of certain neighborhoods. But an uncomfortable number of current Supreme Court justices have proven hostile to disparate impact claims. Many observers feared that the Mount Holly case would backfire, giving conservative judges a chance to undermine the provision, repeating what they did with the Voting Rights Act this summer.
Thanks to the recent settlement between the parties, however, the fair housing law will continue to protect people of color, at least for now. The settlement requires 44 of the houses built under the redevelopment plan to be offered at affordable rates, and 20 of those offered to go to current residents at no extra expense to them. It also puts the kibosh on a larger effort by the judges to limit the scope of civil rights claims.
Hip hop savant Kanye West made the news a lot this week. First, there was the SNL spoof of him and his wife Kim Kardashian this past Saturday. Then he unrobed his new sex tape music video on Ellen DeGeneres’s daytime talk show. But he also made a surprise visit to Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design to meet with its African American Students Union, a group of about 20 black students working toward careers in architecture and urban planning.
If the numbers seem low for that union it’s because African Americans are extremely underrepresented in the design disciplines, as are people of color in general. This, in fact, is what the Harvard students invited Yeezy to their campus to talk about after hearing him vent about how people don't take his ambitions as a designer seriously because he's black. Last month, Ye told a radio host in Los Angeles that he will “design the new Sistine Chapel.” (One might argue that preposterous statements like that are what get him laughed off, not his race, but how preposterous would it sound if Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates made that same declaration?)
West showed up at Harvard while in Boston for a leg of his Yeezus tour. He had a closed-door discussion with the black grad students, and then, as they were concluding a tour of the school building, he spontaneously hopped on a table to deliver a speech -- really a manifesto: “I really do believe that the world can be saved through design,” he said.
It was a bold performance that captured plenty of media attention. But obscured by the Yeezus media circus were the people who invited him and why. A few of the students responsible for bringing Kanye took a break from their end-of-semester finals to talk with Grist about the lack of of equity and inclusion in the world architecture. They too believe that design can save the world, but only if it is more reflective of the public, which is not all white.
Initially, James Raby just wanted to save his school, Walter L. Cohen High, in New Orleans. Named after a prominent black businessman and political leader, the school sits in one of the more diverse neighborhoods in Uptown New Orleans, and has served a mostly black student population. Raby graduated three years after it opened in 1953.
Cohen High was one of the first schools to reopen after Hurricane Katrina, but it has struggled to stay alive since then. The school was in one of the few neighborhoods that didn’t flood, so it was filled with a lot of students dealing with the traumatic stress and disorder that came with Katrina. Since 2006, it’s had three different administrative operators, at least a half-dozen principals, and a ton of teacher layoffs as a consequence of the shifting leadership.
Cohen High was not included in the city’s “Plan for the 21st Century,” the post-Katrina reconstruction strategy devised through a city-wide community participation process to decide what would be rebuilt and how. The state wants to shutter it completely by 2015, and send the students to a new mega-high school, called Booker T. Washington, that is slated to be built about two miles away.
The Walter L. Cohen Alumni Association, over which Raby presides, opposes moving its alma mater to the new high school, arguing that, with the right leadership, Cohen High’s small class sizes could lead to better academic performance than a larger school. And as Raby learned during his campaign to keep Cohen alive, environmental assessments of the soil at the new site show high concentrations of dangerously toxic metals, including lead, arsenic, chromium, mercury, and barium.
Now, Raby’s mission has changed from saving his school to saving any student from having to go to a school that’s planted on contaminated land.
Giving up the grease is a hard sell in the South, though, especially if people find such cooking emblematic of their culture -- a complication explored recently in the documentary Soul Food Junkies, and as seen regularly on the cooking shows of former Southern glory Paula Deen. But eating healthy can’t be seen as a foreign concept in a state like Mississippi, which leads the nation in obesity and diabetes. Which is why Minor, and a team of pastors across the impoverished Mississippi Delta region, have made it their mission to change their members’ eating habits.
Minor's work has earned him the support of First Lady Michelle Obama. Recently, he took his mission a step further by enlisting as a “Navigator,” an evangelist of sorts for the Affordable Care Act, helping people sign up for the troubled program.
I caught up with Minor by phone as he drove to Memphis to connect with more churches around expanding access to quality healthcare. What I learned: Grassroots movements really can influence federal policies, and he does not approve of New York City Mayor Bloomberg’s attempt to ban large sodas.
I had hoped that the movie 12 Years a Slave, which opened last Friday nationwide, would serve as a fair launching point for discussions I plan to cultivate in this space around racism, environmental justice, and American history. There is much to unpack from the slavery era that helps explain some of our problems today with issues ranging from environmental racism to climate change. I’ll explore that in future blog posts, but meanwhile, I learned a lot from some of the readers of my blog post about the environmental story in 12 Years.
Michael Metivier, an environmental writer in Vermont, contacted me about his own exploration of the history of land and human subjugation in America. He came to these topics in 2010 when he, a white man, found out that he is a descendant of William Benjamin Gould, a black man who escaped slavery in Wilmington, N.C., in 1862, and later joined the Union Navy. Gould’s diaries are considered authoritative texts on the conduct of war and slavery.
Meltivier’s discovery led him to research both the racial and natural history of the place where his great-great-great-grandfather was enslaved -- a town that in 1898 would become the location of the only violent overthrow of a local government in U.S. history when white supremacists gunned down freed black and white elected officials.
That kind of violence during both slavery and Reconstruction is a history lesson all too seldom taught by itself. But another commenter brought to my attention the violence done to the land throughout the South. Aaron Joslin, a PhD candidate at the University of Georgia, who teaches about soils and hydrology, commented on Grist’s Facebook page that “the ecological consequences of cotton farming and the slave labor that enabled it … were enormous and inhibit agriculture in the South to this day.”
Residents of the Gardens, a predominantly African American and Latino neighborhood in Mount Holly, N.J., brought the case against the township's governing officials. Those officials made plans in 2003 to demolish the entire Gardens neighborhood, saying it was too blighted to remain, so that they could build new, expensive housing in its place. They planned this “to save the people from that neighborhood,” as one unnamed former township official told Adam Serwer in his in-depth report on the case for MSNBC. (For a fuller profile of the neighborhood and the dispute, I highly recommend reading his story.)
But while this protracted legal battle started out as a group of residents fighting to save their homes, it has become a referendum on a pivotal legal standard under civil rights law. That legal standard, called “disparate impact,” allows a minority group to sue if it can prove that the effects of plans or policies will result in racial discrimination -- without having to prove that planners or policymakers intentionally set out to discriminate.
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.