“A world to win, a planet to save!” That theme of the recent Freedom Socialist Party’s national convention punctuated the urgency of stopping environmental destruction before it makes the earth uninhabitable. Having grown up in San Francisco and lived in New York City for the last 33 years, I was inspired by the theme to study and write on the central role of racism in urban ruin. I’ve concluded that it will take an ecosocialist fight that integrates race, gender and economic exploitation to get rid of environmental racism.
Race: the determining factor. In 1987, the Commission for Racial Justice of the United Church of Christ (UCC) published a landmark study titled “Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States.” It showed that race was the single most important factor in determining where toxic waste facilities were placed in the U.S. It also found that building these facilities in communities of color was intentional.
Its 2007 study, “Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty, 1987-2007: Grassroots Struggles to Dismantle Environmental Racism in the U.S.,” reported that even more people of color were living near polluting sites than 20 years ago.
Toxic in New York and San Francisco. My friend Tanya tells a clear story. She is a Black single mother of seven, one an infant. Her family lost their home in the Rockaway Peninsula of New York City through Hurricane Sandy in October 2012. Before Sandy, reports on the need for sea wall reinforcement around NYC went unheeded by city and state officials, and evacuation plans were woefully inadequate. Many of the hardest hit areas were predominantly poor and people of color, including low-income housing projects.
Since the hurricane, Tanya’s family has been moved from shelter to shelter in Harlem and the Bronx, miles away from the Rockaways. One shelter was so mouse-infested she was afraid to turn the lights off at night. Illness plagues her kids, but her letters and calls to officials go unanswered.
Duciana, a Radical Women sister and friend, lives in the Bayview-Hunters Point (BVHP) section of San Francisco. Hunters Point is the most polluted part of S.F., contains four times as many toxins as any other city neighborhood, and has asthma, cancer, and infant mortality rate that are among the highest in the state and the country.
By the 1960s, the BVHP neighborhood had become increasingly segregated from San Francisco and today is predominantly African American, Asian, and Latino. In the early 1960s, author-activist James Baldwin said during a visit to the area, “This is the San Francisco America likes to pretend does not exist.”
A movement erupts. In the 1960s, while farmworkers rose up against toxic pesticides in California fields and Native Americans pressed for land and fishing rights, people of color in cities protested against incinerators and refineries. Together, they inaugurated the environmental justice movement. In 1967, Black students took to the streets of Houston to protest a city garbage dump that claimed the lives of two children in their community.
Many leaders came out of the Civil Rights movement, coining the term “environmental racism” and bringing with them the same tactics used in those historic freedom struggles — marches, rallies, petitions, coalition-building, and direct action. The movement has been re-enforced by neighborhood action groups and alliances such as those forged between Black and Native American activists who in 1991 organized the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C. The principles from that Summit’s Declaration helped define the multi-issue demands of today.
The struggle for environmental rights also crosses borders. Yudith Nieto is a native Mexican whose family immigrated to the U.S. after years of drought threatened their way of living as farmers. She is a young organizer with Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (TEJAS), mobilized into action by her family and neighbors in Manchester, the most polluted barrio in Houston, who are being sickened by the fumes and pollutants, and threatened with the Keystone XL pipeline.
Women are at the forefront of the movement for environmental rights because they are disproportionately employed in jobs that involve dangerous exposure to toxic chemicals and afflicted with cancers and miscarriages. For us, the battles against racism and sexism go hand-in-hand. As my friend Tanya says, “It’s not just about race. It’s also about economics, about education.” Ecofeminism, which converges the feminist and ecology movements, has stressed the pivotal links between the exploitation of nature and of women.
What the environmental justice movement must not tolerate is silencing people of color and labeling anyone who makes the link to racism as “divisive.” This happened at a January 2014 “Clean Air, No Excuses” rally controlled by white organizers who contended that “race has nothing to do with clean air in Utah.” Rebecca Hall, a Black organizer with the group Peaceful Uprising in Utah, forcefully countered, “This is not just an environmental issue. It’s an issue of racial justice and economic justice.”
Some dismiss the environmental justice movement as a “white movement.” Not so. To characterize it as such negates the leading role people of color play in this movement.
An ecosocialist solution. The bitter fact is that racism is a fundamental feature of U.S. capitalism, which relies on the super-exploitation of Blacks and other people of color, and will always put the almighty dollar above the safety and health of our communities. Our planet is in major crisis because of environmental destruction, and the culprits are the 1 percent. Environmental protection laws under this system are too little, too late, and unenforceable.
Eradicating environmental racism will require openly organizing against capitalism through a grassroots ecosocialist movement. An economic system based on shared abundance instead of private gain, run by the working class rather than the profiteer ruling class, is the only humane alternative to capitalism. Key demands in that direction would include nationalizing the energy industry under workers’ control, halting privatization of water and other natural resources, and collective, democratic planning for the needs of people and the earth.
The urgent struggles against racism, sexism and the profit system are inseparable from the environmental movement. Militant organizing that makes these connections is needed now. The very survival of urban communities of color — and the rest of the planet — depends on it.
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