Thursday, April 20, 2006

Bennie Thompson: This Earth Day, Let’s Make Environmental Justice a Crucial Issue for Blacks

Incredible article with excellent points. It’s true, the environment is not a race issue.


Bennie Thompson: This Earth Day, Let’s Make Environmental Justice a Crucial Issue for Blacks

Date: Tuesday, April 18, 2006
By: Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, Special to

Mercy, mercy me
Things ain't what they used to be, no
Where did all the blue skies go?
Poison is the wind that blows from the north and south and east
Mercy, mercy me, mercy father
Things ain't what they used to be, no
Oil wasted on the ocean and upon our seas, fish full of mercury
Mercy, mercy me
things ain't what they used to be, no
Radiation under ground and in the sky
Animals and birds who live nearby are dying
Oh, mercy, mercy me
Things ain't what they used to be
What about this overcrowded land
How much more abuse from man can she stand?

-- "Mercy, Mercy Me," Marvin Gaye

April 22nd is Earth Day. Yet for many African-Americans, Earth Day is just another day in an environmental movement that is perceived as overwhelmingly white and privileged. For many, there is a feeling that the “green” movement is more committed to saving the spotted owl than addressing the environmental degradation of communities of color and the poor. This perception was further fueled by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animal’s (PETA) Animal Liberation campaign last year which compared the treatment of animals to that of enslaved Africans during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade in the New World.

Yet, if one takes a closer look at the history of the American environmental movement, we will find that it is replete with the contributions of African-Americans. For example, George Washington Carver, one of America's greatest agricultural researchers, worked wonders in the field of crop rotation to preserve soil and improve farm productive. Zora Neale Hurston consistently documented and connected her literary characters’ developments to their land and environment. York, the enslaved African-American who accompanied Lewis and Clark during their expedition to the West, relied on his experience as a woodsman and hunter to impress the Native Americans he met along the way.

It took a group of African-American churchwomen to radically alter the mainstream environmental images of salmon swimming upstream and the majestic Rockies to that of public health. In 1982, hundreds were arrested in Warren County, North Carolina when protestors laid their bodies on a road to protest the dumping of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyl) in their community. Although the community lost the battle, this effort is viewed by many as the birth of the environmental justice movement -- a movement that studies, analyzes and attempts to eradicate the disproportionate impact that toxins have on communities of color and poor people.

Their efforts were not in vain. The following year, the U.S. General Accounting Office conducted a study which found that three out of four off-site, commercial hazardous waste landfills in the southeastern United States were located within predominately black communities. In 1987, a study by the United Church of Christ Commission of Racial Justice found that race was the most significant factor in determining where waste facilities were located. Specifically, the study found that three out of five African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans and 50 percent of Asian-Pacific Islander Americans and Native Americans lived in communities with one or more uncontrolled toxic waste sites. A follow-up study in 1994 concluded that this trend had worsened.

When the Congressional Black Caucus and civil rights groups began to highlight this issue, President Clinton issued Executive Order 12898, charging all federal agencies to address the disproportionate pollution and toxicity levels experienced by communities of color and the poor. Last June, President Bush reversed the Executive Order by removing race and class as a special consideration of the definition of environmental justice.

As I continue to attempt to address the many devastations of Hurricane Katrina, I cannot help lamenting Marvin Gaye’s accuracy in "Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)." Although written a generation ago, his words screamed at me when I toured the ravaged scenery of the Mississippi Gulf Coast and saw the storm’s impact on the local fisheries and shrimp farms. His lyrics haunted me when I walked through the Louisiana Gulf Coast and thought about the effect of the more than 125 oil and chemical plants -- commonly referred to as “Cancer Alley” -- on the health and homes of the many residents.

As an avid hunter and outdoorsman, Marvin Gaye’s plea for the ecology is an awakening. Yes, Katrina exposed the intersection of racism and poverty. But, as African-Americans, we should take up Hurricane Katrina’s challenge, and take a close look at the environmental connection. This Earth Day, blacks should take the opportunity to better understand how public policies relate to the environment and our health. Let us lead the charge of defending our community’s environmental health.

In the words of Marvin Gaye, African-Americans must ask, “How much more abuse from man can she (Earth) stand?" Most importantly, on this Earth Day, African-Americans must commit to addressing Hurricane Katrina’s environmental devastation and health impact on our brothers and sisters.

Rep. Bennie G. Thompson is now serving his seventh term as the Democratic Congressman from Mississippi’s Second District and second term on the Homeland Security Committee.

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