An Update From Jerusalem and Shabbat Shalom

 Good morning from Jerusalem and good night to my friends back in the United States. I’m sitting on my balcony in Jerusalem, watching all of the hustle and bustle as people get their shopping in before the start of Shabbat. I wanted to give you all an update on how things are.  Things are pretty good and I am so grateful to be here with Ariel and Julie, two other RRC students. And to study with Rabbinical students from other colleges, some I’ve known for a while and others are new friends.

I’m studying at the Conservative Yeshiva, in hindsight I’m not sure it is the best fit for me but I’m not sure where a good fit would be. With that said the Yeshiva is great and the faculty really seems to care about how we are doing and they care about the learning.

One of the challenges I’ve been having while living in Jerusalem is the issue of Gender. Religious expression is very gendered in Jerusalem. Men dress one way, women another and I don’t fit into either category neatly. Although my religious expression in Jerusalem would be defined as masculine or male.

I rarely see women wearing kippot and when I do it’s at the Conservative Yeshiva or a progressive synagogue. Women do cover their heads but not by wearing kippot. I am very secure in my womanhood and don’t want to be a man but it’s made me wonder about issues of gender for Israelis who grow up here. What happens if you’re a women, queer or straight that wants to wear a kippot, Tzizit, pants and a tallit? Does one stop being religious? Move to Tel Aviv? Or some other option? These are just some of the thoughts rolling around in my mind. Please discuss if you feel so inclined.

On another note I have been playing a lot of guitar and tomorrow for the first time I will try out leading Shabbat morning services with a guitar. Wish me luck and so grateful to be leading with Ariel and Julie.

In case you missed it here are the latest Jewish songs I’ve learned. Shabbat Shalom Yall

Oseh Shalom – by Yoel Sykes

Psalm 150 / Kol Haneshama

Here is a none Jewish song that I sang after my experience at a Jerusalem post office

For those who want to discuss Trayvon Martin without bringing up race:

(From my Facebook) The sad thing is that we cannot have a dialogue about this without bringing up race/racism. We live in a country where people are treated suspiciously for being Muslm, Arab, black, brown, and/or hispanic etc. That is the world we live in. We do not live in a post racial society. For those of us who have white privilege some of us want to divorce race from the conversation. For the rest of us (and allies) who do not have that privilege we are trying to say there is something wrong here. I want to live in a place “where people are not judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” I want to get to a place where the first thing we utilize as a measurement is not someone’s external designation, but we look beyond that into the substance of a person and rid ourselves of those kinds of prejudices and biases we often bring to the decisions that we make.

Remembering Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Gulf Coast Region

A good friend of mine was once a teacher in the New Orleans Public School system, he told me once that your average person could never imagine the amount of poverty that existed in New Orleans and how his students, most of them poor and black had to live. After days of watching the aftermath of hurricane Katrina unfold in our living rooms; watching the ineptness of our government’s inability to respond to help thousands of mostly, poor, black people, who could not leave New Orleans, I’d like to believe that everyone at least has some idea of the level of poverty that existed in New Orleans, before the hurricane, Katrina. In many ways Katrina did what many social workers, political activist and local leaders have been trying to do for years, put a face on race and poverty in this county and show the ever widening divisions between those that have and those that have not. Hurricane Katrina also showed children, families, and the elderly suffering because of decades of neglect and public policy that gave little thought to the poor.

Prior to Katrina nearly 50,000 poor people lived in areas of New Orleans where the poverty rate was over 40 percent. In New Orleans the poor black folks were clustered in extremely poor neighborhoods like the Lower Ninth Ward. These neighborhoods did not happen by accident they are the by product of decades of government policies that concentrated the poor, black people in public housing in the inner city. Federal tax dollars encouraged sprawl, neglected affordable housing for the poor thus cutting them from a decent housing, education and economic opportunities.

Katrina revealed to the America public, massive amounts of poverty in this country. Poverty fueled by public policy and urban sprawl which isolated inner city low income workers and people of color from jobs, public transportation, decent affordable housing, and educational opportunities. Katrina also showed the consequences of racial and economic inequality in the United States; massive amounts of people left behind to fend for themselves and most of them are black.

Policy Link, a national non profit research organization, has developed a ten point guide to rebuilding the Gulf Coast region. The NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), and the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank that seeks to broaden the public debate about strategies to achieve a prosperous and fair economy, all of these organizations have come up with very similar strategies in rebuilding the Gulf Coast. I have tried to summarize some of their key points.

First, everyone who was evacuated from the region should be able to return. Governmental policies should require that local residents have preference for all jobs that are created during the reconstruction process. These residents also need to play a central role in rebuilding their communities. There should be focus on rebuilding the Gulf Coast so that all communities are mixed income this will help spread affordable housing across the region. There should also be a system in place to help families find housing in economically integrated neighborhoods.

Secondly, workers who rebuild need fair and decent wages, which will increase the wealth of residents and help lift people out of poverty. Unfortunately, President suspended the Davis-Bacon Act, in areas affected by the flood. Davis-Bacon enacted in 1931, is also known as the prevailing wage law because it preserves the local area wages and labor standards for contractors working with the federal government. Davis-Bacon also ensured affirmative action in employment and guaranteed civil rights protection for minorities and women. Third, voices of the residents need to be heard throughout the rebuilding process. Every effort should be made to ensure that everyone, including those displaced can continue to engage in the voting process and vote in state and local elections. Residents of color, whether returning to the Gulf Coast or settling permanently in other regions, must continue to have representation that serves their interests and needs.

Fourth, there needs to be massive jobs and skills training to help people qualify for jobs that will become available during the reconstruction process. Helping people get the training they need will help people participate in the reconstruction process. Lastly, establish a reconstruction fund for rebuilding new homes, business, etc. Government officials need to communicate with representatives throughout the planning and rebuilding process. In short the Gulf Coast region must be rebuilt in a manner that will not repeat the mistakes of the past and create large pockets of concentrated poverty.

In the aftermath of Katrina it is clear that the response by the federal government to the Gulf Coast region was a disaster in itself and overshadowed the hurricane. Dr. Robert Bullard has published a Twenty-Point Plan to Destroy Black New Orleans  his plan is based on his observations made since the storm destroyed the region.

Transportation Racism

One hundred and sixteen years after the Supreme Court decision of Plessy v. Ferguson, fifty-six years after the Supreme Court ended the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and forty-eight years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, government discrimination in transportation has not ended.  In this section we will look at racism in transportation policies showing that the policies are clearly not colorblind.  

All across the country, people of color and poor people do not have equal access to transportation.  Access to transportation, influences ones upper social mobility and allows people to achieve better social and economic opportunities.  Current transportation policies that favor roads over public transit, suburbs over cities create and enforce racial and economic inequality.  They help to further polarize communities on the basis of class and color, and municipalities need to stop transit racism and revisit their public transportation agendas.

As stated earlier the term racism refers to any policy practice, or directive that differentially affects or disadvantages (whether intended or unintended) individuals, groups, or communities based on race or color.  Institutionalized racism is part of the culture and history of the United States, it’s in the water and engrained into our society Transportation racism is the creation of racist, separate and unequal public transportation systems

Ever since the Emancipation Proclamation, which abolished the enslavement of Black people in the United States, Blacks have struggled to end discrimination on buses and trains.

In 1892, a black man, (actually he was biracial), named Homer Plessy who could easily pass for white,

Homer Plessy

decided to challenge a Louisiana law that required separate train cars for Whites and Blacks.  Plessy intentionally boarded a car reserved for Whites and knew he would be arrested.  The case made it all the way to the United States Supreme Court.  In 1886 the U.S. Supreme court upheld Louisiana’s Separate Car Act that called for segregated seating in railroad cars.  The case better known as Plessy v Ferguson ushered in an era of separate but equal.  Transportation racism dates back to the concept of separate but equal which was set in the case of Plessy vs. Ferguson, a U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld segregated seating on railroad cars.  In 1953 Blacks in Baton Rouge Louisiana staged the first successful bus boycott against racial discrimination.  This was followed by the infamous and successful 1955 Montgomery Alabama bus Boycott when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man.

The 1954 case Brown v. the Board of Education was also partly about transportation racism.  The famous civil rights case was a class action law suit.  One of the cases, Biggs v. Elliot was about getting a bus to transport kids to and from school.  The kids that went to the white schools in Calendon County, South Carolina, road the bus back and forth to school, the kids that went to the Black segregated school had to walk because the school board of Clarendon County refused to provide bus for the kids that went to the segregated schools.  The parents sued and this case became part of the famous Brown v. the Board of Education. 

Today, blacks are physically isolated from the means to upward mobility, in other words jobs.  Blacks tend to own fewer cars or no cars when compared to whites and transportation in most areas of the United States in inadequate.  Another part of transportation discrimination is the problem of Sprawl.

In their book, Sprawl City: Race Politics, and Planning in Atlanta the authors analyzes and critique the crisis resulting from urban sprawl in the Metropolitan area of Atlanta, Georgia.  The book puts sprawl related concerns as a core environmental justice and civil rights issue. The book focuses on how government housing, education, and transportation policies have aided and in some cases subsidized separate but unequal economic development and segregated neighborhoods.  The authors explain the causes and consequences of sprawl, and outlines policy recommendations and an action agenda for coping with sprawl-related problems, both in metropolitan Atlanta and around the country.

The authors define Sprawl as “random, unplanned growth characterized by inadequate accessibility to essential land uses such as housing, jobs and public services that include schools, parks, green space and public transportation.  Typically strip centers, low density residential housing, and other isolated, scattered developments leapfrog over the landscape without rhyme or reason.  Sprawl fueled growth pushes people further apart geographically, politically, economically, and socially.  The economic boom times that drive sprawl creates unequal opportunities. Developments in the suburbs often mean empty storefronts in the city’s core.  The government creates more roads that lead to the suburbs s but do not create public transit to the suburbs.  Without public transportation to the suburbs, new jobs, created by suburban business development are out of reach to city residents who do not have cars.  This creates the concentration of poverty in the city’s urban core.  Sprawl is not a necessary by-product of metropolitan growth and economic development. Growth can be planned and managed.  Sprawl drives up transportation cost.  Families are spending more money to drive further distances to work, school, etc.  There are more cars on the road which creates more pollution due to traffic congestion.  According to the CDC sprawl is a major health threat and during the 1996 Olympics games there was a 22.5% reduction traffic and a 42% reduction in Asthma related emergency room and hospital visits.

Transportation equity (TE) is where concerns extend to disparate outcomes in planning, maintenance, and infrastructure development.  Transportation is a key component in addressing poverty, unemployment, equal opportunity, and ensuring equal access to education, employment, and other public services.  Transportation equity is about fairness, access, and opportunity to better transportation that will take people to where the jobs are located.  Transportation equity looks at the negative environmental costs of transportation and scrutinizes discrepancies in resource allocation and investment.  It also seeks to address unequal outcomes in planning, operation and maintenance and infrastructure development.   Transportation equity focuses on the distribution of benefits and enhancements among the various population groups, especially among low income and people of color communities.

There are three general types of transportation equity, Horizontal Equity focuses on fairness of cost and benefit allocation between individuals and groups who are considered comparable in wealth and ability.  Vertical Equity with Regard to Income and Social Class is concerned with allocation of cost between income and social classes.  Vertical Equity with Regard to Mobility Need and Ability focuses on how well an individual’s needs are met compared with others in their community.

Cost and benefits associated with transportation developments are not randomly distributed.  The discriminatory effects of transportation projects can be included under three categories of inequity Procedural Inequity, Geographic Inequity and Social Inequity.  Procedural Inequity results when transportation decisions are not carried out in a uniform, fair and consistent manner with involvement of diverse public stake holders.  Geographic Inequity results from the geographic and special impacts of transportation decisions.  These impacts affect rural, urban, and central-city neighborhoods differently.  Such as physically being located on the wrong side of the tracks and receiving substandard services.  Social Inequality results when transportation benefits and burdens are not randomly distributed across population groups.

Access to transportation, whether public or private, influences ones upper social mobility and allows people to move into better social and economic opportunities.  The book Highway RobberyTransportation Racism & New Routes to Equity links the inequalities in transportation to larger economic, health, environmental justice, and quality of life issues.  The book shows that publicly funded segregation jeopardizes health and limits economic opportunities, and creates feelings of frustration and isolation.  The authors demonstrate how transportation policy and urban planning create and enforce racial and economic inequality.  Highway Robbery asserts these current policies will further polarize communities on the basis of class and color, and the authors in this anthology demand that cities and states revisit their public transportation policy agendas.

Changes in zoning have made it possible for suburbs to increase their share of office space, while the urban core of cities see their share declining.  Federal and state transportation funds favor roads and highways that lead to the suburbs and favor suburban commuters and auto owners over people who are dependent on public transit for their transportation needs.  Transportation users suffer rundown buses, long waits, longer rides, poor connections, service cuts, overcrowding, and daily exposure to some of the environmental pollutants from cars.  A few years ago I read an article that related that several members of congress felt that spending money on public transportation was a waste of time.  The belief was that government spends money on public transit, yet most Americans do not use it.  Thus, public transit is a waste of money.  This is not the entire picture of what happens with public transportation.

Far too much of our transportation dollars are spent on roads and highways at the expense of communities of color, the government encourages people to use their cars and not public transportation.  Federal tax dollars build and subsidize the roads, freeways and public transit systems.  The government builds highways to the suburbs and then subsidizes the construction of suburban homes.  In other words the government gives tax breaks to home owners who buy newer homes, basically paying people to move out to the suburbs, another term is middleclass welfare.  The transportation projects of building the roads out to the suburbs, have the unintended consequence of dividing, isolating and disrupting some communities while imposing inequitable economic, environmental, and health burdens on them.

Suburban communities benefit from the building of the roads and highways while the cities bear the burden and pay the cost in poor health and loss of jobs.  Many children who live in areas near an interstate suffer from asthma that is probably caused by pollutants that come from the exhaust of cars.

Moreover the federal government spends more money on highways than on public transit.  These new roads are built that lead to the suburbs without significant public transportation service, and thereby open up those areas for development and new jobs.  The result is people leave the city, move to the suburbs where the jobs are located, this takes jobs out of the cities core. Thus, highway spending shifts people and jobs to areas without public transit, thus gutting transit ridership.

Transportation is a key component in addressing poverty, unemployment, equal opportunity, and ensuring equal access to education, employment, and other public services.  Transportation equity is about fairness, access, and opportunity to better transportation that will take people to where the jobs are located.  Transportation equity looks at the negative environmental costs of transportation and scrutinizes discrepancies in resource allocation and investment.  It also seeks to address unequal outcomes in planning, operation and maintenance and infrastructure development.   Transportation equity focuses on the distribution of benefits and enhancements among the various population groups, especially among low income and people of color communities.

In the city of Atlanta transportation policies are implicated in land-use patterns, unhealthy air, and suburban sprawl in metropolitan Atlanta.  Transportation and land-use plans contributed to social, economic, and racial inequities.  Race shaped the path of land-use planning and public transportation in metro Atlanta.  Racism has kept the Atlanta region economically and geographically divided.  Atlanta metropolitan area has a regional transit system in name only.  The Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) serves just two counties, Fulton and DeKalb.  The original plan called for a five-county regional transit system.  In the 1960s, MARTA was hailed as the solution to the region’s growing traffic and pollution problems. Atlanta’s white economic and political elites, led by Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen, Jr., pushed for a rapid-rail system that they felt would market Atlanta as a “cosmopolitan” New South city.  White suburbanites did not want public transit or blacks in their communities.  For whites in Atlanta MARTA has stood for “Moving Africans Rapidly through Atlanta.”

The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA) attempted to level the playing field between Highway and transit investment.  This law changed existing patterns where the federal government covered about 90 percent of the cost for highway and about 75 percent of the cost for transit.  This caused the local governments to invest their funds in highway transportation because the federal share was bigger.  This law also allowed states to be flexible in their highway funds and move funds to transit and other alternatives.  ISTEA has since expired and was replaced with the 1998 Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) that authorized federal funds to improve the nation’s transportation infrastructure. TEA-21 expired 2003 and was replaced with TEA-3 to rejuvenate urban areas through transportation redevelopment, increased transit and sustainable alternatives to urban sprawl.  TEA-3 adhered to civil rights laws and affirmed the principles of environmental justice.

Race still matters in the United States and the deterioration of urban public transportation is totally do to racism and must be addressed.  Transit racism (TR) was responsible for the death of 17 year old Cynthia Wiggins of Buffalo, New York.  Wiggins was unable to secure a job in Buffalo but was able to find work in the mall. On her way to work Wiggins was crushed by a dump truck while crossing a seven lane highway because the number 6 bus, used by mostly inner city blacks was not allowed to stop at the suburban Walden Galleria Mall.  Members of the Wiggins family and members of the black community charged the Walden Galleria Mall with using the highway as a racial barrier to exclude some city residents.  The case was settled 10 days after it was filed with several million dollars left to Wiggin’s son.

Transportation racism is also responsible for a large part of the deaths that occurred during and after the Hurricane Katrina.  Forecasters predicted that Hurricane Katrina was going to be deadly, government officials knew that nearly 134,000 residents-most of them poor and black did not have transportation and would be stuck in New Orleans and would not be able to evacuate.  The government failed to provide transportation to evacuate people before the Hurricane and continued to fail in evacuating people after the hurricane.

Historical Background on Environmental Racism

In 1983, the United States General Accounting Office conducted a study of several Southern states that found three out of every four landfills were located near predominantly minority communities.  In 1987, the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice Toxic Waste and Race report showed that the most significant factor in determining hazardous waste facility sites, nationwide, was race.  The report also found that three out of every five African-Americans and Hispanics live in a community buttressing unregulated toxic waste sites.  This landmark study, further described the extent of environmental racism and the consequences for those who are victims of polluted environments.  The study revealed that: Race was the most significant variable associated with the location of hazardous waste sites. The greatest numbers of commercial hazardous facilities were located in communities with the highest composition of racial and ethnic minorities.

In 1991, the First National People of Color Leadership Summit  met in Washington, D.C., and forged the Principles of Environmental Justice.  The EPA established its Office of Environmental Justice (OEJ) in 1992.  In 1992, a study conducted by the National Law Journal (NLJ) reported that the (EPA) discriminated in its enforcement of laws pointing out that federal fines were not as strict for industries operating in communities of color, and that clean-up of environmental disasters in these communities were slower than in wealthier, white communities and that standards for clean-up in communities of color were not as high.  In 1993 President Clinton ordered the federal government to ensure equality in protecting Americans from pollution.  President Clinton then issued Executive Order (EO) 12898 in 1994; titled “Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority and Low Income Populations,” he then designated 11 agencies accountable for environmental justice.  The order prohibits discriminatory practices in programs receiving federal money.  The Executive Order signed by Clinton is not a new law it just reinforces old laws and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  More than a decade later, factory emissions still disproportionately place minorities and the poor at risk.  People of color continue to be victims of environmental degradation.  An analysis of data from a government research project shows that black Americans are 79 percent more likely than whites to live in neighborhoods where industrial pollution  poses the greatest health danger.

Early in the environmental movement, mostly white environmental groups used the NIMBY principle which means Not In My Back Yard, not realizing the implications, or caring about where the waste would eventually end up; and it ended up in someone else’s yard, mostly poor black peoples’ yards.  Some communities that have little or no zoning laws have just applied the PIBBY (Put In Blacks’ Backyards) principle.  Black communities over the years have continued to be targeted for toxic and hazardous waste facilities this include landfills.  These toxic facilities are filled with the life-threatening presence of poisons, toxins and pollutants that threaten our neighborhoods.  Black people are more likely than Whites to live near a landfill.  Far too many blacks live in communities with uncontrolled toxic waste sites.  The largest commercial hazardous waste landfills are located in Black communities.  As a consequence, the residents of these communities suffer shorter life spans, higher infant and adult mortality, poor health, poverty, diminished economic opportunities, substandard housing, and an overall degraded quality of life.

Low-income Black communities are the most vulnerable for siting of landfills incinerators, toxic waste dumps, lead smelters, etc.  These are also the same communities that are least likely to have adequate fire protection, housing code enforcement, health care delivery, and street lighting and sewer hookups.  Household incomes and home values were substantially lower when communities with hazardous-waste facilities were compared to communities in the surrounding county without such facilities.

There is tons of evidence that strongly suggest that this is environmental racism and that these toxic-waste dumps are not randomly scattered across the American landscape.  The siting process has resulted in minority neighborhoods (regardless of class) carrying a greater burden of localized costs than either affluent or poor white neighborhoods.  Landfills are often located in communities that have high percentages of poor, elderly, young, and black residents.  There is a ridiculously large concentration of uncontrolled toxic waste sites found in black urban communities.  For example, when Atlanta’s ninety-four uncontrolled toxic waste sites are plotted by zip code areas, more than 82.8 percent of the city’s black population compared with 60.2 percent of its white population was found to be living in waste site areas.  Despite its image as the “capital of the New South,” Atlanta is the most segregated big city in the region. More than 86 percent of the city’s blacks live in mostly black neighborhoods.  As is the case for other cities, residential segregation and housing discrimination limit mobility options available to blacks.  There are also toxic time bombs in rural areas of the south.  Large commercial hazardous-waste landfills and disposal facilities are more likely to be found in rural black communities.

The burden, or negative side, of industrial development has not been equally distributed across all segments of the population.  Living conditions in many communities have not improved very much with new growth.  Black communities became the dumping grounds for various types of unpopular facilities, including toxic wastes, dangerous chemicals, paper mills, and other polluting industries.

Who came first, the communities are the corporations?  Another way of looking at this is why are there so many landfills and hazardous waste disposal facilities in black neighborhoods?  I believe that this has everything to do with environmental racism.  Based on my research most Environmental Justice activists agree with me that the siting of landfills is the result of discrimination in how the sites are selected.  Another theory that has been brought forward is that of  Law Professor Vicki Been.

Been has looked at market demands and has come up with a theory that relates that waste facilities are not the product of discrimination and intentionally siting in minority communities.  Been believes that poor racial communities have formed around these facilities.  Basically under this idea the landfill is in the community, people who can afford to leave do, and those who cannot stay.  Property values go down and the property becomes more affordable to lower income families, add in other forms of housing discrimination elsewhere and the neighborhood becomes black and poor.  I do not buy this argument but I believe it might be worth some further investigation.

Lead Poisoning

Children of color are the most vulnerable population and suffer the greatest in the effect of Environmental racism.  Lead is a highly toxic substance, and exposure to it can produce a wide range of health problems.  Adults and children can suffer from the effects of lead poisoning, but childhood lead poisoning is much more common.  Over the many years since we have known about the hazards of lead, tens of millions of children have suffered its health effects.  As of 2004, there was still at minimum more than four hundred thousand children under the age of six who have too much lead in their blood.  Because of environmental racism, communities of color are disproportionately exposed to pollutants, including lead, air pollution, and pesticides.  Lawrie Mott also adds that Federal regulations fail to protect the most highly exposed population, children of color, because the government’s standards do not take into account children’s differential exposure to these toxins or the increasing nature of these exposures.

Also by virtue of their playing habits, such as playing close to the ground and playing outside, this gives them greater exposure to pollutants.  Poor inner-city children of color are more likely to suffer from lead poisoning than white inner-city children.  Children of color are more likely to suffer from asthma and have higher rates of cancer.

One could easily argue that Native Americans were the first victims of Environmental Racism, because they have been trying to protect their land from the ‘white man’ ever since that fateful day in 1492.  That day set off a series of events that have practically annihilated the indigenous people of the United States, and made them a mere smidgen of their once powerful nations.  Indian Nations are still being threatened with environmental racism.  Over the last few decades their communities are being sited as new dumping grounds of unwanted waste and their lands are being targeted as storage facilities for toxic substances produced outside their boundaries in other parts of the United States.  Native Americans, like most other racial minorities, have suffered disproportionately from environmental hazards, environmental degradation and environmental racism.  As regulations are making it harder to site toxic facilities, corporations and the government are at looking at, Native American lands, as potential dumping grounds to store their waste.  Over the last few decades Native lands have been targeted as storage facilities for toxic substances produced outside their lands in other parts of the country.

Some Indian Nations have been successful in reversing agreements for waste facilities and stopping dumping on their soil.  In 1990 Native American activist came together and formed what eventually became known as the annual “Protecting Mother Earth Conference” the activist later formed the grassroots environmental justice organization that later became known as the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN).

At the time of the conference a significant number of Native American communities were targeted for large toxic municipal and hazardous waste dumps and nuclear waste storage facilities.  Also some facilities that were currently located on Native lands were leaking and oozing out of the ground with toxic poisons.  The conference and the organization was established to find ways to protect native land, sacred sites, the health of the native people, the over all environment and to build economically sustainable communities.

Environmental Racism

Dr. Robert Bullard, who is the leading authority on Environmental Racism (ER), calls “Environmental Racism a combination of prejudice and the power to implement decisions and policies that defend, protect and enhance the social position of Whites at the expense of people of color.”  As Americans we live in a racist society and we suffer from the remnants of our sordid history; the exploitation of people of color which lead to slavery, and racial discrimination – in employment, housing and practically all aspects of life.  Racism is institutionalized; it is part of the culture and history of the United States.  According to Bullard “The term racism refers to any policy practice, or directive that deferentially affect or disadvantages (whether intended or unintended) individuals, groups, or communities based on race or color.”  Discrimination is a manifestation of institutional racism and causes life to be very different for white folks when compared to black folks.  Historically, racism has been and continues to be a major part of our American society and as a result, people of color continue to find themselves disadvantaged in a modern society.

Dr. Benjamin Chavis was the first person to coin the term environmental racism, in 1981.  Environmental Racism can be defined as: Racial discrimination in environmental policy making and the enforcement of regulations and laws; the deliberate targeting of people of color communities for toxic and hazardous waste facilities; the official sanctioning of the life-threatening presence of poisons and pollutants in our communities; and the history of excluding people of color from the leadership of the environmental movement.  It also refers to any government, institutional, or industry action, or failure to act, that has a negative environmental impact which disproportionately harms – whether intentionally or unintentionally – individuals, groups, or communities based on race or color.  It is also a combination of public policies and industry practices to provide benefits for whites while shifting cost to people of color.

In the United States, the victims of environmental racism are people of color, who are more likely than Whites to live in environmentally hazardous conditions. Three out of five African Americans live in communities with uncontrolled toxic waste sites. Native American lands and sacred places are home to extensive mining operations and radioactive waste sites. Three of the five largest commercial hazardous waste landfills are located in predominantly African American and Latino communities.  As a consequence, the residents of these communities suffer shorter life spans, higher infant and adult mortality, poor health, poverty, diminished economic opportunities, substandard housing, and an overall degraded quality of life.  In other words environmental racism is another form of racial oppression.

What is Environmental Justice: An Overview

In 1999 a study by the Institute of Medicine defined “environmental justice as being a concept that addresses the physical and social health issues related to the distribution of environmental benefits and burdens among the populations, particularly in degraded and hazardous physical environments occupied by minority or disadvantaged populations.”
The Environmental Protection Agency defines Environmental Justice as
“the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”
Environmental justice encompasses the pursuit of justice and protection under the law without discriminations based on race, ethnicity, or income level.  Environmental justice focuses on improving the environment in communities, specifically minority and low-income communities, and addressing disproportionate adverse environmental impacts that may exist in those communities.  Basically, no group regardless of race, ethnic background, or socioeconomic status should have to bear an unfair share of negative environmental conditions from the government or private industry.
In order to understand environmental justice, we need to recognize Environmental Racism, or environmental injustice which is defined as the disproportionate impact that pollution and toxins have on people of color, indigenous peoples and poor people.  Numerous studies have shown that communities of color, especially black communities, and low-income communities in the United States host an inordinate number of environmental hazards and bear a disproportionate impact of environmental irresponsibility.  This is the core of environmental injustice, which the movement for environmental justice seeks to eradicate from environmental policy, industry tactics and cultural practices.
Environmental justice is the byproduct of the intersection between the civil rights movement and the environmental movements.  The Environmental Justice movement has emerged as a result of increased awareness of the disproportionately high impacts of environmental pollution on economically and politically disadvantaged communities.  The environmental justice movement stresses community participation in the decision-making process and equal access to relief mechanisms regarding pollution.  It has brought together issues of social, economic, and political marginalization of minorities and low-income communities, and concerns over pollution hazards in neighborhoods and in the workplace.
Over the past two decades the Environmental Justice Movement (EJM) has grown organically out of dozens, even hundreds, of local struggles so much so that pointing to a particular date or event that launched the Environmental Justice Movement is difficult. One could easily argue that environmental justice started with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 when he went to Memphis, Tennessee to help Black striking garbage workers who were demanding equal pay and better working conditions.  Sadly Dr. King was assassinated shortly after he gave a speech supporting the garbage workers, but his wife, Coretta Scott King, picked up the cause and marched with the striking workers shortly after her husband was assassinated and before he was buried.
One could also make the argument that Native Americans have been doing environmental justice work for centuries.  It is however, historically recognized that the environmental justice movement took off in 1982 in Warren County, North Carolina, when residents protested against the siting of another hazardous waste landfill in their county.  Activists from both the civil rights and environmental movements laid down in front of trucks carrying PCB-contaminated soil into the largely African-American Warren County – already inundated with more industry than any of the other counties in North Carolina.  The Warren County demonstrations did not stop the new landfill but the events that transpired in this rural, mostly black, and poor county brought attention on environmental racism and the impact of public policy decisions sighting unwanted facilities.
According to Robert Bullard, the environmental justice framework rests on developing tools and strategies to eliminate unfair, unjust, and inequitable conditions and decisions.  The framework also attempts to uncover the underlying assumptions that may contribute to and produce differential exposure and unequal protection.  It brings to the surface the ethical and political questions of “who gets what, when, why, and how much.” The environmental justice framework adopts a public health model of health promotion, protection and disease prevention (i.e., elimination of the threat before harm occurs) as the preferred strategy; shifts the burden of proof to polluters/dischargers who do harm, who discriminate, or who do not give equal protection to people of color, low-income persons, and other “protected” classes; allows disparate impact and statistical weight to be used to infer discrimination;  redresses disproportionate impact through “targeted” action and resources.  In general, this strategy would target resources where environmental and health problems are greatest.  Sociology is the theoretical framework that ties it all together

What is Environmental Justice

I’m going to be posting a few articles over the next few weeks on the topic of Environmental Justice. These articles will discuss, What is environmental justice? Environmental Racism; Transit Racism; Environmental Racism as a Global Problem; and a look at the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and a few others. Stay tuned.