On the Front Lines & Fencelines

How Black communities have consistently confronted environmental injustice

This is part 1 of the series:

February 2, 2021

By Brianna Cunliffe – PEN Chief Investigative Reporter

Before environmental justice was a buzzword, it was the simple demand from members of a rural North Carolinian Black community who put themselves on the line to prevent toxins from being dumped in the midst of their homes. The events of 1982 in Warren County sparked a movement that continues to this day, and form just one part of the long legacy of Black leadership in defense of our planet. 

Black Americans have been whistleblowers, crusaders for public health and close partners of the land for generations. Yet for so long, the stereotypical image of an environmentalist has been a white, affluent tree-hugger, despite the fact that polls show that Black Americans are consistently more concerned about climate change than their white counterparts — perhaps because they have been forced to feel its devastating impacts more acutely. 

“I’ve been serving for 12 years, really focusing on communities of color in North Carolina. For 10 of those 12 years I was the only Black woman serving as a Soil and Water Conservation District Supervisor in the state of North Carolina,” said Danielle Adams. “And just like what we’ve seen with COVID, it is communities of color, it is people of color, who are mostly impacted by the devastating effects of global infectious disease, natural disasters, increased severity of storms, flooding, economic depression, and access to food and food insecurity.”

Before Rachel Carson and the legions of modern urban planners, many of the original public health advocates weren’t academics or officials — they were residents of neglected, segregated urban areas where no one else was stepping up.  The Black church played a massive role in community organizing, with the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice commissioning a 1987 report proving that  race was the most significant factor in the location of hazardous waste sites. 

To help communities cope with chronic environment-driven illnesses like asthma when access to medical care was abysmal, the Black Panther Party created free health clinics across the country in the 1970s, even influencing health policy like the Sickle Cell Anemia initiative. 

Black activists were fighting toxins in the air and water while the largely-white mainstream environmental movement was focused on rosy initiatives like conservation, public lands and protecting  biodiversity — critical pursuits to be sure, but jarringly disconnected from the life-or-death realities faced by Black advocates and their communities. 

This contrast is not a thing of the past. These disparate realities still exist today, as communities of color in California and Louisiana fight for basic health and safety setbacks from fossil fuel infrastructure, while white advisory councils, although well intentioned, in places like Portland, Oregon debate bike lane creation and solar gardens. 

“I grew up in Louisiana, in a big family. We lived modestly in a tight knit Black community sharing everyday moments that draw people together. This year because of climate change our community was ravaged by, not one but two hurricanes and people had to wait weeks for the electricity to be restored,” said Christian Brock, CEO Elected Officials to Protect America. “Far too many families in areas across a state riddled with oil refineries, pipelines and pollution are suffering from environmental injustice simply because they don’t have deep pockets, and the color of their skin is too dark. Our communities deserve justice. I was heartened to hear President Biden say he wants to put an end to the pollution in Louisiana’s infamous ‘cancer alley.’ EOPA stands with his climate change efforts to help ensure they happen.”  

The routes of pipelines and placement of other fossil fuel infrastructure as Brock described is the modern continuation of these patterns. 

Supervisor Danielle Adams, involved in work against the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, described its path through districts she represents: 

“They chose a pathway that goes through the most economically depressed towns  and vulnerable communities in Appalachia on purpose. Communities who are already marginalized, who are already economically depressed, who are already vulnerable to racial violence, the impacts of climate change. They see that, and say, this is where we’re going to go. It’s very precise in who they’re denying their rights, and they’re doing it because they don’t have political clout. These aren’t the people who have the power to stop it.”

The troubling nature of this fracture is exacerbated by the fact that conventional wisdom about solving natural resource dilemmas can lead to gentrification in communities already struggling, displacing Black and low-income residents. Black leadership in environmental spaces goes a long way towards remedying this lack of critical consideration. It also broadens the scope of who can be an environmentalist, making it clear that it can and must be anyone who cares about a livable planet, not just the charismatic megafauna that inhabit it. 

To be sure, to seek to save the whales is a worthy goal — but when campaigns focus solely on distant animals or plants they inadvertently drown out the voices of fellow citizens still struggling for their human rights. This points to the serious disconnect within the environmental community which may hinder its ability to act decisively. 

The Black Lives Matter events of 2020 have served as a reckoning point, with many mainstream environmental groups belatedly recognizing that they cannot ignore broader social issues, as they have failed to engage with structural racism within their own organizations. The unintentional consequences have resulted in  limiting  access to a movement which needs all of us in order to succeed. As Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, a renowned marine biologist and expert on ocean climate systems said in her influential Washington Post editorial, you cannot muster a devoted core of scientists, thinkers and ordinary citizens to fight the climate crisis while too many people of color are fighting simply for their right to breathe. 

There are countless flourishing Black-led environmental initiatives, from the NAACP’s Environmental and Climate Justice Program to West Harlem for Environmental Action, and with a Black man, Michael Regan, at the helm of the Environmental Protection Agency for the first time, many hope that the environmental movement will at last place the contributions of Black environmentalists where they deserve to be: center stage. 

This Black History Month, as we grieve the loss of hundreds of thousands of Americans, disproportionately Black Americans, to the coronavirus, let’s give thanks to the countless heroes who have led the fight against darkness and injustice in the past, and now rise once more to do so.