The Optimist View: Why anti-racism and environmentalism go hand-in-hand

“The harms suffered by ecosystems today are closely linked to and mirror the harms experienced by the most marginalized human being across the planet” – David Pellow

By Amelia Buckley

I had the fortunate experience of being raised surrounded by the outdoors. From camping to backpacking to skiing, I relished not only the natural spaces around me, but also the interesting and like-minded people I met along trails. As I grew up, I began to notice that there was a concerning trend in the people I saw around me in these spaces. Those enjoying the parks around me were overwhelmingly white. In fact, according to a recent National Parks Service survey, about 78 percent of those who visit federal parks are white. 

A disproportionate burden

Not only are protected outdoor spaces mostly occupied by non-people of color, but areas of environmental degradation and abuse are also mostly located in areas where large proportions of residents are people of color. 

In the United States, more than half of the people who live within 1.86 miles of toxic waste facilities are people of color and 11.2 percent of African American children and 4.0 percent of Hispanic-American children are poisoned by lead, compared with 2.3 percent of white children.

Economic inequalities and systematic racism in both private industry and government have led to communities of color shouldering the brunt of environmental degradation and the negative health effects that go along with it. 

David Pellow

David Pellow, the Dehlsen and Department Chair of Environmental Studies and Director of the Global EnvironmentalJustice Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is a pioneer in the field of environmental justice. Specifically, his book, What is Critical Environmental Justice?, analyzes the intersectional nature of the environmental movement with other factors including race, sex, class, ethnicity, and nationality. 

In a symposium on the UC Santa Barbara campus last year, he said,

“Where we find social inequalities, we also tend to find environmental inequalities.” 

Pellow’s powerful speech drew intricate connections between various forms of oppression and environmental issues. Analyzing the case of Eric Garner, who was killed by a New York police officer in 2014, Pellow makes a salient connection between Garner’s last words, “I can’t breathe,” and the reality that Black communities have disproportionately high levels of air pollution.  

Prisons and pollution

Prisons, which also have disproportionately high levels of incarceration of Black and Brown Americans, are routinely built in environmentally toxic areas. Rikers Island in New York was built on top of an old landfill and for years, inmates at Kern Valley State Prison in California drank water tainted with arsenic. Furthermore, the EPA does not take prison populations into account in their initiatives and policies because prison populations are not included in the census count.

Action groups like the Prison Ecology Project, which advocated for the inclusion of inmates in the EPA’s Environmental Justice 2020 agenda, and individuals like Bryant Arroyo are standing up to the negative environmental effects of prisons on both the land they sit on and the prisoners who occupy them. Bryant Arroyo, an inmate in Pennsylvania, led 500 other prisoners in a letter writing campaign to successfully prevent the construction of a toxic coal plant next to the prison.

Volunteers distribute bottled water in Flint, Michigan

These unequal effects of damaging environmental degradation are visible all across the country. Pellow writes, “Where we see rivers dammed for hydropower plants, we also tend to find indigenous peoples and fisherfolk, as well as other working people, whose livelihoods and health are harmed as a result.” In Flint, Michigan, the city switched the water supply from Detroit’s system to the Flint River to save money and, as a result, residents were exposed to drinking water that was chronically contaminated leading to elevated levels of disease and lead poisoning among children. Not coincidentally, over half the population of the city is African American. 

Advocating for change

A big part of making the environmental movement more inclusive is amplifying Black voices to educate environmentalists about the needs of Black communities and the ways they have been especially impacted by environmental crises. One study of environmental NGOs by Dorceta Taylor, a professor of Environmental Sociology at the University of Michigan, found that 88 percent of staff and 95 percent of boards were white.

Groups like the Mothers of East Los Angeles (MELA) have routinely fought the construction of hazardous facilities in low income neighborhoods including a toxic waste incinerator that would have burned 125,000 pounds of hazardous material each day. 

Environmentalist Leah Thomas has wrestled with the intersectionality of racial and environmental justice throughout her career. “The longer racism is not addressed, the harder it will be to save the planet, in part because Black activists’ time and energy are being drained,” she said. 

Fortunately, some organizations are stepping up to close the racial gap in the environmental crisis. Undocufund is an organization that offers natural disaster relief and shelter to undocumented residents. They are specifically based in Sonoma, where wildfires have ravaged communities and destroyed thousands of homes. Undocufund has helped over 4,000 families with fire related loss over the past 2.5 years. 

Many organizations, like the Sierra Club, have added committees focused on improving diversity. They have an Equity, Inclusion, and Justice department to specifically address environmental issues which heavily impact communities of color. 

More equal access to outdoor spaces

In addition to more diverse environmental organizations, it’s also critical to equalize access to natural spaces. This involves telling the full story of the establishment of protected lands, which were stolen from Indigenous Peoples. It also means making sure everyone feels welcomed and safe in natural spaces by reducing monetary barriers to outdoor access. 

In February of last year, over 50 CEOs of outdoor companies, including REI and The North Face, signed the CEO Outdoor Equity Pledge to support the inclusion of more diverse voices in the outdoor industry and promote diverse access to outdoor space and activities. 

Earlier this year, we shared how Oregon is making state park access free for disabled, LGBTQ, and POC campers this summer. Initiatives like this help to promote more diverse use of public lands. 

If you’re an environmentalist looking to make your personal activism more inclusive, consider taking the Intersectional Environmentalist Pledge to learn more about what steps you can take, read Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry by Camille T. Dungy, or listen to The Yikes Podcast.

About the Author:

Amelia Buckley is a staff writer for the Optimist Daily and recent graduate of the University of California, Santa Barbara. As a global studies major and lover of the outdoors, Amelia is passionate about crafting stories that focus on critical global issues that impact our environment and natural spaces.

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