The Emergence of the Environmental Justice Movement
The environmental justice movement is now 40 years old. Its influence is barely growing.
Dr. King died in 1968, and the Civil Rights Movement had already been a robust national presence for well over a decade. Yet it was fourteen more years until environmental justice entered the national highlight.
Environmental justice issues first received widespread attention in 1982 when protests erupted over the development of a latest waste disposal facility in a black community in North Carolina. In 1997, the United Church of Christ Racial Justice Commission published a report showing that hazardous waste sites were disproportionately positioned in black communities. Within the interim, the term environmental racism was coined by the Rev. Dr. Benjamin Chavis while he was preparing to present a report back to the national press. In trying to make your mind up methods to communicate the findings, he said, “it got here to me – environmental racism. To me, that’s what it’s.” A more systematic study got here in a 1990 book by Robert Bullard, which made two key claims: that race is the predominant consider the unequal distribution of environmental harm, and that individuals of color had been frozen out of the relevant decision-making.
Why the delay within the emergence of environmental justice as a cause, at a time when civil rights had long been a national issue? We will only speculate, but perhaps the explanations lay in rapidly escalating levels of frustration. Almost twenty years after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, too little looked as if it would have modified on the bottom. Throughout the Civil Rights movement itself, there could well have been a search for brand new strategies.
There may have been frustration that the environmental laws passed within the prior decade had not translated into tangible environmental improvements for the disadvantaged. And all this frustration could only have been heightened by the timing. In 1982, the Reagan Administration was in full swing, and it was clearly no friend to either civil rights or environmental protection.
Regardless of the trigger for its emergence into the limelight, environmental justice quickly developed momentum. Although President George H.W. Bush had taken some earlier steps, the foundational executive motion on environmental justice was a 1994 executive order by President Clinton. The order directs each agency to deal with “disproportionately high and hostile human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies, and activities on minority populations and low-income populations.” It’s unclear, nonetheless, whether Clinton’s order had much practical effect.
There is clear truth to Dr. Bullard’s more moderen remark that “the Environmental Justice Movement is far stronger in 2021 because of recent and invigorated rallying calls for racial justice with the rise of Black Lives Matter, after the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black people, and the intergenerational protests throughout the Summer of 2020.” Even before then, lead contamination within the water supply of Flint, Michigan, had brought headlines to official disregard for the welfare of black communities.
As Bullard went on to say, and as we are able to see in President Biden’s actions since taking office, “environmental justice has been given a latest sense of urgency and visibility at the very best level of presidency.” It stays to be seen, nonetheless, to what the Biden Administration’s aspirations for environmental justice might be translated into tangible results.