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Stop Excluding People of Color in Environmental Policies

May 06, 2020

Environmental_scale_310998The fight to save our planet should be about ensuring a long and sustainable future — for everyone.

However, as the coronavirus has spread across America, it has laid bare the harsh inequities in American society.

The inequities have surfaced in obvious ways, including early data released by states showing that the virus is killing African Americans at disproportionately high rates, a disturbing trend that illustrates the substandard availability of health care in black America.

The inequities have also surfaced in subtle ways, including policy decisions that fail to reflect the needs and day-to-day realities of low-income communities and communities of color. The irony is that many of these policies are well-meaning. But in some cases, they also have had troubling unintended consequences.

Consider the area of environmental policy. Protecting the environment should be about protecting people, regardless of the color of their skin, ethnicity or race, where they live, or how much money they make. 

Yet there are many in the mainstream environmental movement who continuously overlook the needs and realities faced by some of our most underserved and vulnerable communities. That includes the push by the mainstream environmental advocacy community to enforce plastic bags bans in favor of reusables, despite the fact that cardboard paper and other reusables pose a clear public health risk — especially for workers on the front lines of the pandemic response.

Why, for example, is it smart public policy to insist that grocery workers be exposed to reusable bags when research shows that reusable bags can be repositories of the COVID-19 virus? The majority of these essential workers are low-income people of color who are disproportionately bearing the brunt of the COVID-19 crisis, dying from the deadly disease at twice the rate of white people.

Additionally, in New York, it is well-documented that a recently enacted statewide plastic bag ban has disproportionately hurt black and Latino-owned businesses and shoppers. Although there is an exemption for recipients of benefits like WIC and food stamps from paying the five-cent tax on paper bags, working-class people of color and low-income New Yorkers still must pay.

Some stores have been charging for both plastic and paper, and, in some cases, more than five cents a bag. Five cents might not seem like much. But five cents (or more) per bag adds up, especially when one is living paycheck-to-paycheck, or, as is more likely at this moment, not working at all due to the coronavirus.

Some environmentalists have argued that opponents of the bag ban are trying to capitalize on the COVID-19 crisis by recommending a suspension of all bag regulations. Again, it would appear that many mainstream environmentalists only use research data to support policies that reflect their privileged vantage point without respect to the impact of those policies on the underprivileged.

I coined the term "environmental racism" in 1982 while involved in protests in Warren County, North Carolina, against the digging of a PCB landfill in the heart of a poor black agricultural community. At the time, there were some who thought that environmental issues should not be considered civil rights or racial justice issues. That was then, but the same attitudes persist and are part of our current public discourse, a kind of arrogance on the part of the privileged who think they know what is best for the disadvantaged and underprivileged.

Today, as the environmental justice movement has grown into a global campaign for change led by grassroots activists and leaders from people of color communities globally, we all know more about the intersection between the issues of racial and environmental justice.

I recall vividly back in the late 1980s after I co-authored and published a landmark study for the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice, Toxic Waste and Race in the United States, how unnerved the mainstream environmental movement was by the fact that people of color would do empirical research and define our own reality with respect to exposure to environmental hazards. Of course, our study demonstrated that there was an unequivocal link between race and the siting of toxic-waste facilities in America.

Unable to look beyond the blinders of a privileged ideology, some who call themselves environmentalists often fail to truly take into account the day-to-day concerns of millions of low-income Americans and people of color living in urban neighborhoods that also house hazardous sanitation sites, incinerators, rail yards, power plants, and other environmental hazards.

Indeed, some mainstream environmental groups insist on pushing for policies that make life harder for people of color and poor communities, arguing that such hardship — if they acknowledge it at all — is a price we must pay in order to achieve broader goals that those of privilege have envisioned and formulated as the standard for all to pursue.

As the virus continues to spread, we need to let go of high-minded ideological arguments and do everything possible to protect workers on the front lines of our efforts to contain it — including grocery clerks and deliverymen. Some states have temporarily lifted their bag bans or eradicated them altogether. A number of grocery stores are re-introducing plastic bags and telling customers not to use reusable bags.

As the crisis has unfolded, New York has twice extended non-enforcement of its plastic bag ban in the face of a lawsuit that challenges its constitutionality. It is not enough. The state should give essential workers and shoppers alike a sense of protection during the pandemic and bag the plastic ban altogether.

More often than not, these kinds of life-altering decisions are being made without the consultation or input from communities of color. Close to forty years after the publication of our Toxic Waste study, communities of color are still mostly excluded from these conversations, overlooked by many in the mainstream environmental movement as well as by local and state governments.

The fact remains: there is a divide between the mainstream environmentalism movement and the environmental justice community. And until both are able to come together and acknowledge the pervasive environmental harms that communities of color endure on a daily basis, the rift will only deepen. Ignoring or excluding the concerns of people of color from the environmental movement will not help solve the nation's or the world's environmental challenges.

Dr. Benjamin Chavis is president and CEO of the National Newspaper Publishers Association.

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