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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 2/19/19

Black History Month: Why African Americans Are Leading Fight for Environmental Justice

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Before the Environmental Justice Movement burst on to the national scene, pollution in communities of color and poor neighborhoods was largely ignored by the media, industry, government, and green groups.

The environmental justice framework grew out of grassroots community struggles committed to a simple principle. That principle? That all people and communities are entitled to equal protection of environmental, energy, health, employment, education, housing, transportation, and civil rights laws and regulations. This year represents the fortieth anniversary of the 1979 Bean v Southwestern Waste Management Corp. lawsuit, the first of its kind to challenge discriminatory siting of a waste facility under civil rights law. African American homeowners in Houston began a bitter fight to keep a municipal landfill out of their suburban middle-income neighborhood.

Residents and their attorney, Linda McKeever Bullard, filed a class action lawsuit to block the facility from being built. I was an expert witness on the Bean case. My 1979 Houston waste study found a clear racial pattern in the city's dumping: 82 percent of all solid waste disposed in Houston from the 1930s to 1978 was dumped in mostly black neighborhoods even though blacks made up only 25 percent of Houston's population. This pattern occurred in a city without zoning.

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Four decades after Bean and the Houston waste study, researchers have found environmental injustice maps closely with Jim Crow housing segregation, bias decision making, and discriminatory zoning and land use practices. America is segregated and so is pollution. The equity lens is a useful frame for understanding the intersectionality of environmental, climate, economic and racial justice issues in the United States.

Millions of Americans have the "wrong complexion for protection." Race is still more potent than income in predicting the distribution of pollution and polluting facilities. Even money does not insulate some Americans from pollution and environmental racism. African American households with incomes between $50,000 to $60,000 live in neighborhoods that are more polluted than the average neighborhood in which white households with incomes below $10,000 live.

African Americans are 79 percent more likely than whites to live where industrial pollution poses the greatest health danger. African Americans in 19 states are more than twice as likely as whites to live in neighborhoods with high pollution levels, compared to Hispanics in 12 states and Asians in 7 states.

African Americans are overrepresented in populations who live within a three-mile radius of the nation's 1,388 Superfund sites. The percentage of African Americans living near the nation's most dangerous chemical plants is 75 percent greater than for the U.S. as a whole, and the percentage of Latinos is 60 percent greater.

African Americans and other people of color breathe 38 percent more polluted air than whites. They are exposed to 46 percent more nitrogen oxide than whites. In 46 states people of color live with more air pollution than whites. African Americans are exposed to 1.5 times more pollutants than whites.

Residents living near dirty coal plants are more likely to suffer from respiratory illnesses than those living farther away. More than 68 percent of African Americans live within 30 miles of a dirty coal-fired power plant, compared with 56 percent of whites and 39 percent of Latinos.

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Robert D. Bullard is Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy in the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University in Houston. His most recent book is entitled "The Wrong Complexion (more...)

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