Environmentalism or Ideology? Inner City Activists Talk Pollution, Push Social Agenda

Christopher H. Foreman, Jr
Chris Foreman
Christopher H. Foreman, Jr Former Brookings Expert, Former Professor and Director of the Social Policy Program - University of Maryland (College Park) School of Public Policy

September 1, 1997

Since Love Canal, grassroots activists and their allies in academia have argued that “environmental racism” too often characterizes the way society allocates pollution, hazardous chemical exposures, and environmental law enforcement. A multi-ethnic (black, Latino, Native American, and Asian American) movement for “environmental justice” (EJ) has spurred the creation of an Office of Environmental Justice at EPA. It has also inspired EPA Administrator Carole Browner to create a National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC) through which activists, industry representatives, and the agency could “brainstorm” for ways to reach out to minority and low-income communities and regularly hear their pleas for environmental redress.

In the name of environmental reform, however, inner-city activists have been pushing their own agenda. Indeed, the best way to think of EJ partisans is as social justice activists who choose to pursue their goals within an institutional and rhetorical framework of environmentalism.

The EJ movement’s biggest coup was the February 1994 presidential executive order instructing federal programs across the board to address “disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects. . .on minority populations and low-income populations in the United States.” Health is surely a concern of EJ activism. The specter of poisoned communities is obviously compelling for constituencies that have generally paid scant attention to (and sometimes even disdained) the “hiking, biking, and spotted owls” brand of white middle-class environmentalism.

But “health” is really only the tip of the EJ iceberg. Below the water line lurks a far broader social justice agenda. Consider the very names of some of the major activist organizations.

NEJAC chairman Richard Moore heads the Albuquerque-based Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice. There is also the Environmental Justice Project of the Southern Organizing Committee for Economic and Social Justice, located in Atlanta and run by the indefatigable Connie Tucker, a self-declared “Pan-Africanist.”

When the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit convened in Washington, D.C. in October 1991, the 17 “principles of environmental justice” it adopted demanded an end to “the production of all toxins, hazardous wastes, and radioactive materials” and to the “testing of experimental reproductive and medical procedures and vaccinations on people of color.” The principles also affirmed the right of everyone to safe and healthy work environments, to quality health care, and to freedom from the need to choose between unsafe jobs and unemployment. The preamble, modeled on the U.S. Constitution, pronounced the aims of the meeting as including nothing less than “our political, economic and cultural liberation that has been denied for over 500 years of colonization and oppression, resulting in the poisoning of our communities and land and the genocide of our people. . .” Clearly, more than mere environmentalism is operating here.

In March 1993 testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, Pat Bryant, head of the Gulf Coast Tenants Association, another EJ group, offered a similarly lengthy list of grievances. And this past August, during a segment of MSNBC’s “Internight” television program, the Reverend Jesse Jackson couched his support for a lawsuit by residents of a black Houston neighborhood against the Chevron Corporation in stark social justice terms. The resident of Kennedy Heights allege that Chevron’s predecessor, the Gulf Oil Corporation, targeted contaminated land for a black housing development, and they are seeking up to $500 million in damages.

During the program Jackson argued that Chevron needs to “come to the table” to discuss jobs and the company’s broader obligations to the neighborhood. Jackson made this point in response to my argument that modern epidemiology generally offers little support for citizen allegations of environmentally-induced clusters of non-infectious chronic disease. I was trying to talk science but Jackson had his eyes on a different prize altogether.

A primary appeal of the EJ rubric clearly lies in the leverage it might offer over redistributive and political objectives that have little, if anything, to do with industrial pollution. In the final analysis, the EJ movement is not primarily a “public health” movement but a loose aggregation of advocates for grassroots democracy, institutional accountability, and social justice. As with grassroots environmentalism generally, its fringes include a fair number of folks whose underlying thrust is a frank dislike of industrial capitalism.

EJ aspires to unify residents, to increase their collective profiles in policy debates and decision making, and to get “the system” (i.e. firms and government) to yield as many environment-related social benefits as possible. This egalitarian motivation means that EJ can ill afford an agenda driven mainly by health impacts. Mortality and morbidity associated with causes that don’t easily prompt the necessary citizen outrage—tobacco-use or poor dietary habits are obvious examples—make for difficult mobilizing.

The movement’s aims also explain its insistent emphasis (as with grassroots environmentalism generally) on relatively minor or weakly-documented (but nonetheless fear-inducing) hazards like dioxin, toxic waste sites, and environmental “endocrine disrupters.” The debunked folk myth of a “cancer alley in Louisiana lives on in the minds of EJ activists because it is both intuitively appealing and politically useful.

This is not to argue that environmental poisons are innocuous. They are not. But we cannot rely on EJ activists to give communities balanced guidance on the relative significance of various environmental risks. For the activists, a claim about risk is a political tool in the service of broader purposes.

Nevertheless, there are signs that EJ activists and the political establishment might be able to cooperate on a social justice agenda that avoids distorting public health priorities in minority communities. The administration’s “brownfields” urban revitalization initiative is the vehicle. By reducing disincentive barriers to local development unwittingly erected by Superfund’s liability scheme, the Clinton EPA hopes to spur jobs, training, and life chances among communities of all colors throughout the country.

Activists were at first suspicious when the administration began talking up brownfields redevelopment in 1994, fearing it might be just an excuse to introduce polluting development. But with aggressive outreach by EPA, activists are coming around, and brownfields is now a major item on NEJAC’s agenda.

By shedding its misleading health rhetoric, and by moving overtly toward the economic agenda that has actually propelled it all along, EJ may yet play a productive role in national public policy debate.