In 1987 The United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice conducted a landmark study with startling results. Memphis, Chicago, Atlanta, St. Louis, Houston and other urban areas were found to contain the greatest concentrations of hazardous waste sites. Susan Moffat noted in a 1995
Los Angeles Times
article, relative to a study at Occidental College, that non-whites in the Los Angeles area are three times more likely than whites to live within half a mile of hazardous waste treatment sites or dumping centers. What’s even more disturbing is that “some populations are in a one-mile radius of six or seven hazardous waste sites.”(1) The researchers at Occidental College also concluded that “race was even more important than income in determining whether a neighborhood had a toxic waste dump.” (2) The Environmental Protection Agency of California, of course, denies that race is a factor in the permitting process.
Nearly halfway across the country another urban wasteland was created. It is a city that is populated by practically 100% peoples of African descent. This city has no obstetric services and no garbage removal. Jobs are scarce. Raw sewage backs up into homes and schools regularly. And this city, East St. Louis, has the highest rate of children’s death related to asthma. East St. Louis sits directly next to Monsanto Chemical, Pfizer Chemical, Aluminum Ore, Big River Zinc and other industrial plants. It was noted at the New England Environmental Law Society, Harvard University (Nov, 1992) that “Most of these plants have their own incorporated townships, where no one lives and are no more than legal fiction to provide shelters and immunity from the jurisdiction of East St. Louis.”(3) This is a city where “lead is found in playgrounds at an astonishing 10,000 parts per million.” (4) The fact that children play directly downstream from chemical and metal processing plants has resulted in “the highest rate of childhood asthma in the nation.”(5) Children also play in what is known as 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 ride their bicycles.” (6) East St. Louis has been aptly described as “America Soweto.” Jonathan Kozol in
, further details the atrocities in East St. Louis and their effects on the urban school children there.
Lead poisoning affects an alarming 49% of African American children residing in the inner city. That figure leaps to 68% for those with an income of less than $6,000. The implications and ramifications of widespread lead poisoning on the lives and intellectual potential of urban school children are far reaching.(7)
The purpose of this unit will be to explore environmental racism, the resulting environmental hazards, (specifically air pollution and lead poisoning) and their affects on urban school children.
Lessons and workshops geared towards elementary school children, parents and other community members will be developed. The focus of these workshops and lessons will be to educate all concerned about these environmental perils that threaten our communities and the the underlying racial implications.
What is Environmental Racism?
Environmental racism is racial discrimination in environmental policymaking. It is racial discrimination in the enforcement of regulations and laws. It is racial discrimination in the deliberate targeting of communities of color for toxic waste disposal and the siting of polluting industries. It is racial discrimination in the official sanctioning of the life-threatening presence of poisons and pollutants in communities of color. And, it is racial discrimination in the history of excluding people of color from the mainstream environmental groups, decision making boards, commissions, and regulatory bodies.
Benjamin Chavis, Confronting Environmental Racism: Voices from the Grassroots
Environmental racism, or sometimes called environmental injustice, is a modern term used to describe a age-old phenomenon where as people of color are subjected to environmental and health risks in disproportionately higher numbers than other groups in society. It is a result of five hundred years of colonial oppression where the exploitation of people of color, the land and natural resources are interwoven. In communities where people of color reside and work, there is an increased chance for exposure to toxic landfills, incinerators, industrial dumping and other environmentally hazardous undertakings. Many can be said to live in “disposable communities to be thrown away when the population they hold have outlived their usefulness”. (7a) People of color are disproportionately found in industries with “high levels of occupational health risks, and in the most hazardous jobs within those and other industries.”(8) This results in significantly increased occupational disease and mortality rates. In homes, children of color are exposed to lead at alarming rates. This is partly due to the age and condition of the housing stock, which was once painted with lead based paint. These children are often trapped in the segregated communities in which living conditions are substandard. Air pollution has given rise to to an epidemic of childhood asthma and other respiratory diseases.(9) Jonathan Kozol writes in Amazing Grace, “Asthma is the most common illness among children here. Many struggle to take in a good deep breath. Some mothers keep oxygen tanks, which children describe as ‘breathing machines’, next to their children’s beds.”(9a) Native American reservations and Third World nations suffer a similar fate. These nations often targeted as dumping grounds for hazardous waste, uranium mining and nuclear testing.
The concept of “social pollution” has assisted in segregating people of color, particularly people of African descent, from the majority of people in society because they “appear as a threats to the structure and organizing principles of social order”.(10) The central characteristic of this concept is the attribution, by the majority culture, of socially unacceptable behaviors (which the majority culture actually exhibits) to a particular group of people. In the U.S people of African descent are often viewed as less civilized than whites, engaging in pursuits designed specifically for physical and emotional gratification. During slavery black males were perceived as sexual competition for white males and a threat to the “purity” of white females and the white race for that matter. In part, because interracial sex between black males and white females was strictly taboo, though white males were allowed to exploit black females at will, segregation of the races was perpetuated and is still perpetuated to this day. This results in what Robert Bullard refers to as “residential apartheid”. He maintains that “apartheid-type housing, and urban development policies limit mobility, reduce neighborhood options, and diminish job opportunities for millions of Americans”(11), particularly African-Americans who are more likely to live in racially segregated communities regardless of income. “In 1990, more than 57% of African Americans lived in central cities, the highest concentration of any racial and ethnic group”.(12)
Robert Bullard writes that African Americans, regardless of income, education or professional achievement
are exposed to higher crime rates, less effective educational systems, high mortality risks, more dilapidated surroundings and greater environmental threats because of their race. Institutional barriers make it difficult for many households to buy their way out of health-threatening physical environments. The development of spatially differentiated metropolitan areas where African Americans are segregated from other Americans have resulted from governmental policies and marketing practices of the housing industry and lending institutions. Millions of African Americans are geographically isolated in economically depressed and polluted urban neighborhoods away from the expanding suburban job centers. (13)
These communities are perceived as “appropriately polluted space”(14) because the people who reside in these communities are perceived by the larger culture as socially polluted. The pollution here is less visible and poses very little risk to the white community. Therefore it is not by coincidence that people of color are subjected to such environmental ills but that it is a matter of public policy.
What About These Children?
Depression is common among children in Mott Haven Many cry a great deal but cannot explain exactly why. Fear and anxiety are common. Many cannot sleep . . . The houses in which these children live, two thirds owned by the City of New York, are often as squalid as the houses of the poorest children I have visited in rural Mississippi, but there is none of the greenness and healing sweetness of the Mississippi countryside outside their windows, which are often barred and bolted as protection against thieves.
Jonathan Kozol, Amazing Grace
One cannot help but wonder (with a great amount of dread) what psychological affect this type of environment has on its tiny victims. The physical affects (which have been previously mentioned) are well documented and devastating enough. These children cannot help but compare their environment to “resplendent images” portrayed on television as typical American landscape. The contrast must be striking, shocking and confusing. They must wonder why they are subjected to such squalor, pollution, disease, hopelessness and violence. This must have a profound affect on their social, educational and physical development. They cannot help but feel they are not valued in this society because to many they are not our society has developed a very effective system which will trap many of them in a state of confusion, hopelessness, rage and sickness well into adulthood. This is the tragedy of environmental racism. Children are essentially sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole not because they have committed any crime, but because their skin color, brands them as subhumans not deserving of the same rights as the larger culture in our society. And this society which preys on small children, considers itself the epitome of civilization.
The Environmental Justice Movement, from a historical perspective.
During the 1970’s higher educational institutions and civil rights groups noted the inconsistencies in environmental health protection. Mohai and Bryant cited nine studies during this period that identified inequities from air and hazardous waste pollution. (17) But most of their concerns fell on death ears until 1982 when residents or Warren County North Carolina successfully blocked a landfill marked for the disposal of soil contaminated by PCB. The governor selected an alternative site for the landfill, Afton, which was 84% black. Warren County was 64% black and the state of North Carolina was only 24% black. In addition to this many scientist noted that the Afton site was problematic because the water table was close to the ground surface and many residents relied on wells as their source of water. The potential for contamination was high. Opposition by grassroots organizations followed. During this nonviolent protest four hundred people were arrested.
This incident influenced Walter Fauntroy, District of Columbia’s Congressional Delegate to call for the investigations of hazardous waste facilities in EPA Region IV. It was found that “while blacks represented twenty percent of Region IV’s population, in communities surrounding three of the four commercial landfills in region IV, blacks comprised more than fifty percent of the population.”(18)
During the 1980’s other researchers investigated this issue of inequity in environmental protection. Robert Bullard, a sociologist and a leader in this field, authored “Dumping in Dixie” which investigated the issue of waste facilities in five southern black communities and how the residents addressed this problem. He and other researchers were instrumental in stirring interest in this subject and putting environmental injustice on the national agenda.
In 1986 the United Church of Christ conducted a study of the correlation of race and income to the location of hazardous waste sites. It concluded that race was “the most significant variable in determining the location of a commercial hazardous waste facility.” (19)
In January of 1990, a “Conference on Race and the Incidence of Environmental Hazards” was held at the University of Michigan, sponsored by the civil rights organizations and the academic community. One group of presenters referred to as the “Michigan Coalition” wrote to a number of government agencies and congressman demanding action on this issue.
In July of the same year, EPA Administrator William Reilly formulated the Environmental Equity Workgroup to ascertain the extent of the problem and to recommend possible solutions. Because the EPA had not collected data regarding environmental protection in regards to race and income it was difficult for this group to get substantial data regarding this issue. It however did indicate there were trends which supported arguments by earlier researchers. The work group recommended that the EPA do the following.: collect data based on race and socioeconomic status and take this information into consideration when making risk assessment and risk management decisions, target high risk communities and institute measures to reduce environmental risks, “promote the use of equity considerations in the rule making process as well as all agency permit, grant, and compliance monitoring and enforcement procedures”, enhance communication with people of color and impoverished communities as well as including these entities in the decision making process, finally the EPA needed to “ address equity in its long-term strategic plan.” (20)
In 1991 the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit was held in Washington D.C. This resulted in the adoption of the Principles of Environmental Justice. Some key concepts included but are not limited to “respect for the earth, freedom from environmental discrimination, right to a balanced and ethical use of land, self determination, accountability for the production and handling of hazardous materials, right to participation in the 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 the neighborhoods, and providing access to a full range of resources, informed consent, and education based on appreciation of diverse cultural perspectives.”(21) It was crystal clear to many participants that the link between environmental justice and the urban environment required immediate attention and action.
The main thrust of the environmental justice movement is towards urban reconstruction. Cities must be valued as distinct centers for racial and cultural diversity and exchange. Rebuilding urban centers presents employment opportunities and other opportunities for economic development. This economic development must include the inner city communities, organizations and enterprises in every aspect of the planning and decision making process. More energy efficient, non-polluting forms of transportation must be promoted. Urban centers must develop links to each other becoming politically more powerful thus allowing them to set their own environmental policy agendas.
There are numerous environmental justice organizations in the U.S. Below is a list of some organizations located in the New York area.
Concerned Citizens for the Environment
Rhahaway, NJ 07065
425 East 25th St., Box 596, New York, NY
211 s. 4th St., New York, NY 11211
United Church of Christ, Commission on Racial Justice
475 Riverside Drive. #1948, New York, NY 10115
West Harlem Environmental Action
529 West 145th St., New York, NY 10031
What is the potential compensation criterion?
The potential compensation criterion, presupposes that “everyone has their price”. It is based on what is called the substitutability assumption, which states that “individuals knowing their preferences, can substitute one set of preferences for others”.(15) In this case it refers to the trade off of reduced public health in exchange for increased economic gains by allowing polluting industries to locate in a particular community. This concept is rejected by the environmental justice movement and has been labeled by Robert Bullard as “environmental blackmail”.(16) The environmental blackmail concept challenges the potential compensation criterion because its proponents believe that it is unjust to submit people of color and impoverished groups to pollution regardless of the level of compensation.
What is the NIMBY syndrome?
The NIMBY syndrome (Not In My Back Yard) is a term used to describe the organized efforts to prevent industries and activities which a particular community perceives as detrimental from locating there. This is accomplished in several ways. Restrictive zoning laws in suburban areas protect these communities from many “unwelcome development” (22). Urban areas on the contrary are zoned for just about anything. Massive letter writing campaigns, political lobbying and public demonstrations have been successful in blocking the sittings of environmentally detrimental facilities in suburban areas.
Three arguments are used to against such sittings. First oppositional groups argue that this entity will threaten property values. Second it will reduce residential security. And thirdly, the entity will result in the decline of the quality of the neighborhood. (23)
The NIMBY syndrome has been used effectively by white middle class and affluent communities often to the detriment of people of color residing in urban areas. Urban communities in general have been unable to utilize the NIMBY syndrome to their benefit. In essence the NIMBY syndrome contributes greatly to environmental racism.
What Can You Do?
When a potentially hazardous facility is seeking to locate in your community find out specifically what the parameters of the facility and owners are. Find out what products and byproducts will be manufactured, what potentially harmful effects it will have on the community and what it intends to do with its waste products. Research zoning ordinances and the legal and political rights of your community.
Grassroots organizational efforts can be instrumental in preventing hazardous industries from locating in your area. Public protest, petitions, rallies, lobbying political officials, hearings and public debate have been proven to be effective methods. Keeping the community informed via workshops and neighborhood forums is desirable. The key to mounting a successful effort is timing and intensity. The members of the group must act swiftly and intensely to ensure that others are swayed to support them.
Targeting local, state and or federal officials is essential to the oppositional process. Making the issue an election issue also can be instrumental in gaining support.
If all efforts fail, the community can use the court system to bring legal proceedings against the facility.
Environmental racism has existed in the country since that fateful day that Christopher Columbus “discovered” America in 1492. The exploitation of the indigenous populations, land and natural resources began then and has continued to this day. The native inhabitants, people of color, were subjected to genocidal attacks by the settlers which almost entirely wiped out their population. The survivors, segregated from the white population were forced to live on “Indian” reservations. These modern day reservations are often targeted as repositories for hazardous waste and uranium mining.
Africans were kidnapped from their homeland, subjected to torture, rape and murder as they traversed across the “middle passage” to a land of opportunity, “for whites only”. It was on the backs of these slaves that America climbed, all the while beating, violating and murdering their uplifters. These people of color segregated by white society after their “freedom” from slavery because of white paranoia and hatred, were forced to live under deplorable conditions. These human beings were easy targets for the those who were bent on inflicting misery and death upon them, for no other reason than because of the color of their skin.
Many will say that was in the past and they cannot be held responsible for the atrocities that their ancestors committed. So lets look to the present. Who is responsible for the polluted segregated, impoverished communities that many urban children are forced to live under in. Many would like to blame the victims for their position in society but this paper has demonstrated that this is simply not true. This society has a very complex system in place to keep people of color “in their place”. The fact that many people in this country see little wrong with poisoning small children is deplorable. Though more insidious, is this any less cruel than the KKK night riders of the reconstruction period. When will these viscous attacks on people of color end?
And what will you do? Will you read this paper and dismiss it as pure fiction or propaganda. Or will take some responsibility in ending this legacy. Who will save the children?
Prior to beginning this unit, a workshop will be presented to the parents advising them of the basic tenets of environmental racism and developing a community response to it.
Children will gain an understanding of environmental racism by engaging in a simulations, discussions and by implementing their own ideas.
Divide the children into four groups. Draw a square on the rug and place each group in each corner (or use a rug). Have the children imagine that this trash can is filled with poisons that can harm them if it gets close to them. Tell the children the trash can can be placed any where on the rug. Also tell them that everyone will get a chance to suggest where the trash can should go except group four. Solicit suggestions and encourage children to give their reasons for choosing a particular location. Record responses. Ask the children if they think that it was fair that group four didn’t get a chance to participate. Explain to the children that many times in urban communities the people who live there are not included in the decision making process. Ask them what do they think about this. Do they think it is fair? Do they think it is good for the people who live in urban areas? Record their responses. Introduce the concept of environmental racism to children. Advise them that it involves the practice of targeting a particular community, usually populated people of color, as site for polluting industries. Encourage children to express their feelings about this.
Ask children what they think they can do to stop environmental racism. List their ideas. Solicit parent volunteers to come in and help children to implement their ideas. Display them throughout the school and community.
Students will be able to recognize that air is everywhere even
Students will be able to define air pollution and recognize it as harmful.
Students will be able to identify at least one source of air pollution.
The air we breathe.
by Enid Bloom
paper, pencils, crayons or makers
In advance plan a trip to the top of East Rock. Review what we learned about air in the previous lesson. Introduce the word pollution. Ask children if they know what that word means. List their responses. Read pages 9-29. Ask children what air pollution is. Ask children to recall some of the sources of air pollution from the book. List and count them. Tell children that we are going to become pollution detectives. Take a walk around the neighborhood to look for sources of air pollution. Return to class list and discuss what they saw. Discuss with children that polluted air can cause asthma and other respiratory illnesses.
The next day take them on a trip to the top of East Rock (or another location where they can get and aerial view of the city). Have the children locate sources of pollution and illustrate pictures of polluting sources. Collect the pictures to form a class mural to be displayed in the Library Media Center. Discuss what plants and animals could be harmed by these polluting sources.
Have children look through magazines and cut out pictures of sources of air pollution. Have the children classify the pictures into groups. Then glue them on to paper to form a class collage.
Visit the Library Media center or the public library to get other books on the topic of air pollution.
For homework, have children ask their parents to name one source of air pollution. Share and graph responses in class. Though they can not see it.
The air we breathe
, by Enid Bloom, large balloons, liquid detergent, measuring cup, measuring spoon, container, uncoated hangers, straws, paper cups with the bottom cut off, funnels, chart paper.
Show children the cover of the book
The air we breathe.
by Enid Bloom. Ask them to predict what the book is about. Accept all responses. Read the two sentences on page 9 (which is the first page with text in the book). Ask children to look around the room and tell you what they see. List their responses on chart paper. Continue reading the book through page 11. Page 11 tell the children that air is everywhere but they can’t see it.
Advise the children that air can be fun to play with even though it is invisible. Distribute large balloons. Have the children practice inflating and deflating them. While deflating them have the children put the balloon close to their face so that they can feel the air escaping. Ask the children what is in the balloon. Ask them can they see it when it is released.
Tell the children we are going to have even more fun with air. Ask them to raise their hand if they like to blow bubbles. Distribute soap mixture (2 teaspoons of liquid detergent to 1 cup of warm water) hangers, straws, funnels, cups etc. Have children practice making bubbles. Ask the children what is in the bubbles. Ask them can the see it once the bubble pops.
Learn a song about air.
WHERE IS AIR?
Where is air? Where is Air?
Here I am. Here I am.
You can’t see me but I’m here.
You can’t see me but I’m here.
Air, Air, Air.
Brainstorm other things that you can’t see but know are there. Visit an incinerator in your area.
Contact a public health official to come speak to your class about air pollution.
Students will be able to give at least one reason why cities have more air pollution than many rural or suburban towns.
The air we breathe,
by Enid Bloom, pictures of rural, suburban and urban settings, glass slides, Vaseline, microscope.
Show children various pictures of suburban, rural and urban towns including the photographs in the book
The air we breath.
Ask them to identify sources of pollution. Have children compare the pictures. Ask the children which pictures appear to have more sources of pollution. Ask them why they think this is so. List their responses.
Discuss the scientific method with the children: purpose, hypothesis, materials, procedure, conclusion and extension. Perform an experiment. Cover several glass microscope slides with Vaseline. Select several places to place them. rural area, suburban residential area, urban residential area and an urban industrial area. Leave your slides in the areas for at least 24 hours (don’t place them right after a rainfall because rain washes away pollutants from the air and into the ground). Collect your specimens. Predict which will have more dirt on them. Look at the slides under the microscope. Record and discuss the results.
Students will be able to identify one way in which they can help stop air pollution.
The air we breathe,
by Enid Bloom, poster board, paints, markers, pencils, paper, crayons, tape recorder, cassette tape.
In advance solicit parent volunteers to assist with centers. Prepare activities for the following centers: Computer Center, Advertisement Center, Radio Commercial Center, Video Commercial Center.
At the computer center have children write/dictate letters to the local board of alderman urging them to fight against air pollution.
At the advertisement center children will develop posters with anti air pollution messages, to be displayed in and around the school and community.
At the radio commercial center have children create and record a song with an anti air pollution message. Contact local radio stations to request it be played over the air.
At the video commercial center children will develop a video commercial with an anti air pollution message. Contact the local public television stations regarding filming and television exposure.
Rotate activities so that children have the opportunity to engage in as many of activities as they desire.