Commentary By Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr., President of Education Online Services Corporation
WASHINGTON - The worldwide struggle for environmental justice and equality continues. While many advances have been made globally in defining, researching, and confronting the realities of environmental racism, here inside the United States there are still far too many African Americans, Latino Americans, Pacific Islanders and Asian Americans, Native Americans and others who remain disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards, toxins, cancer-causing pollutions, and other life-threatening environments.
Of course, there is more than one contributing factor to these circumstances: economic, social, political, and geographical. But, one of the most "determinative" factors is the issue of race. The whole history of denial when it comes to issues of racial discrimination in the United States remains true. Tragically, those who are the victims of these types of injustices are often denied the possibility for adequate redress and resolution. In other words, challenging "environmental racism" in 2011 should be one of the top priorities for the United States government as well as for state and local governments.
But, we all know well from prior experiences that effective governmental corrective action and meaningful public policy changes only happen when there is an effective and sustainable movement for freedom, justice, and equality around the specific issue at hand. Thus, we must build a stronger environmental justice movement in the United States and establish strategic organizational alliances at the United Nations and with other grassroots environmental justice organizations internationally. It will take stronger movements for change to get all governmental bodies to seek greater environmental justice.
Most of the 15 million weekly readers of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, America's Black Press, should recall that it took many years before the federal government would even admit to the existence of environmental racism. Under Presidents Reagan and Bush, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the 1980s and 1990s refused to acknowledge this social problem. By February 1994, President Clinton issued Executive Order 12898 on Environmental Justice that gave the environmental justice movement an official federal status. Today, the EPA has an ongoing Office for Environmental Justice.
Due to my prior work with the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice and my background as a chemist, I was fortunate back in 1982 to first coin the term environmental racism: "Racial discrimination in the deliberate targeting of ethnic and minority communities for exposure to toxic and hazardous waste sites and facilities, coupled with the systematic exclusion of minorities in environmental policy making, enforcement, and remediation."
President Barack Obama is no stranger to this issue. When he was a state senator from Illinois, he worked with others to challenge environmental injustices in places like Altgeld Gardens located deep on the Southside of Chicago. Hazel Johnson, an African-American grassroots leader from Altgeld Gardens became one of the strong effective national "mothers" of the environmental justice movement. Today, we must press forward without relenting. Literally, millions of African-American, Latino, and other minorities are suffering from an increase in multiple forms of cancer and other diseases as a direct result of unjust and terrible exposures to environmental dangers. That is why we must oppose any attempt to scale back health care coverage and reform in the United States. Millions of lives are at stake.
Let's work with the EPA today and the Obama Administration to get more relief and to establish better living conditions for our families and communities across the nation. 2011 should be a year for more progress. Don't let the negative, cynical forces of reaction take us backward. Yes, there are many different issues and priorities that will demand out attention and energy. It is in the context of our overall struggle for justice and empowerment that I am reminding us not to forget about the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the environment where we live. Racism in all of its deadly forms must be challenged.