Blacks Suffer Health Hazards Yet Remain Inactive on Environment

<i> Paul Ruffins is the executive editor of Black Networking News</i>

What color is a returnable soda bottle? According to a group of Washington’s prominent black ministers and influential leaders, deposit bottles and cans are white. During a 1987 campaign to defeat a local initiative to recycle bottles and cans, the advisory committee to the Clean Capitol City Committee argued that elitist white environmentalists were attempting to victimize the black poor.

In fact, CCCC members were predominantly white and all represented industry groups, such as the Glass Packaging Institute, opposed to returnable bottles. Early polls showed Washington residents supporting the measure. But after the CCCC spent $2 million and ran a slick advertising campaign featuring images of elderly black people struggling to return empties and claims that empty bottles and cans attract roaches, the initiative was defeated 55% to 45%. Washington remains littered with bottles and cans.

“A white-controlled industry group successfully made the bottle bill into a racial issue, convincing the black community that environmentalists were white outsiders,” said Peter Williams, black executive director of D.C. Common Cause, which supported the measure.


Another version of this “environmentalists are outsiders” tactic was attempted in Los Angeles. When environmentalists joined local residents in opposing the construction of a Los Angeles City Energy Recovery Project incinerator in the poor South Central section, a public-relations firm hired to promote the project passed out leaflets saying, “Don’t let outsiders tell you what to think.”

The reasons why industry groups can make this argument reflect the peculiar racial politics of ecology. Minorities are at highest health risk from pollutants both at home and at work: 71% of blacks and 50% of Latinos--as opposed to only 34% of whites--reside in cities and breathe the most polluted air. Often they live in old housing with the highest concentrations of lead in the paint and plumbing. Between 1976 and 1980, more than 50% of all black infants under the age of 3 who were tested had blood lead levels higher than the Center for Disease Control’s proposed standards.

Minorities are also likely to be exposed to toxins by working in the most hazardous jobs in the most unhealthy industries. Latino farm workers suffer an estimated 300,000 pesticide-related illnesses a year. Most incinerators and toxic waste dumps are in minority areas. The General Accounting Office reported that three out of four communities surrounding hazardous-waste landfills in the southeast were predominantly poor and black.

Despite these findings, such organizations as the NAACP and Urban League--exquisitely sensitive to threats to minorities in such areas as education, housing, jobs, AIDS and drugs--have almost completely ignored environmental hazards.

For example, the program for a recent Urban League Conference offered more than 20 forums, from child care to the lack of minority teachers. Not one was dedicated to environmental issues. One session, “A National Health Policy for Parity by the Year 2000,” featured Health and Human Services Secretary Louis W. Sullivan. He said minorities, particularly blacks, are far more likely to die of heart disease, stroke and cancer. However, Sullivan did not mention the link between pollution and cancer, or that air pollution exacerbates heart disease and respiratory problems. It would be bad enough if minority organizations ignored environmental issues--but in many cases, they work against them. NAACP Executive Director Benjamin L. Hooks lobbied against raising the federal fuel mileage standards to 27.5 miles per gallon. Hazel N. Dukes, president of the New York State NAACP, argued that the New York City Council should not institute tough smoking bans to limit indoor pollution.

When it came to the bottle bill, the advisory committee argued that higher beer and soda prices would hurt the poor. Hooks was concerned about blacks losing jobs in the auto industry. Dukes felt the law discriminated against minority and blue-collar workers since executives, more likely to be white, could still smoke in private offices.

Why are many black leaders and organizations willing to join the beverage, auto or tobacco industries in fighting environmental regulations when polls show that most Americans favor stricter pollution controls? On the most cynical level, money is why black organizations have often supported industry groups. Many members of the CCCC advisory committee, or their organizations, received payments ranging from a $350 donation for a women’s shelter to consulting fees of $21,000.

But the economic issue goes beyond greed. Minority organizations need funding to carry out their civil-rights work. The NAACP, Urban League, United Negro College Fund and others receive large donations from corporations and unions. Minority communities are also vulnerable to economic blackmail. Many members of the minority anti-environmental lobby believe a cleaner environment is a luxury compared to issues such as racial discrimination or jobs.

A recent New York Times Magazine story describing Los Angeles’ strict new plan to reduce pollution gives a good example of this attitude. The one minority person quoted was the former president of the Los Angeles City Planning Commission, Daniel P. Garcia, who said the plan, developed by whites, doesn’t consider the needs of minorities. Garcia commented: “I’m tired of being told that poor people breathe bad air, too . . . . Labor-intensive industries employing mainly minorities are hard hit by this. What happens when small businesses can’t afford all these fees and controls?”

The environmental movement must also accept its part of the blame. Many civil-rights groups have longstanding relationships with unions and corporations. Hooks is not likely to forget that United Auto Workers President Walter P. Reuther marched with Martin Luther King Jr. long before Earth Day was invented. On the other hand, most environmental groups have done little to reach out to minorities, making it easy for industry to portray them as elitists. Norris McDonald, president of Washington’s Center for Environment, Commerce and Energy, one of the few black environmental groups, feels that when it comes to hiring minorities, environmental organizations make the same excuses as corporations. “They say they can’t find blacks and other minorities,” he said, “yet when we advertised for minority interns, we got so many applicants they almost knocked our door down.”

Environmental organizations also have not framed their issues to include the needs of minorities. Historically, groups such as the Sierra Club or Audubon Society were to protect the environment from society, rather than to protect people from the environment. They are better known for saving whales than minority children.

Williams of Common Cause also notes that environmentalists have often advocated using higher costs or taxes to encourage conservation without seeming to be concerned about the impact on the poor. Charles Stephenson, chairman of the board of the Center for Environment, Commerce and Energy, believes that white environmentalists have defined the environment too narrowly. “To black folks,” Stephenson said, “the environment isn’t just forests and wetlands, the environment is where you live, so the housing crisis should also be considered an environmental issue.”

But if environmentalists have taken too narrow a view of the environment, many civil-rights leaders’ view of civil rights is not wide enough to include the human right to pure air and water.

Fortunately, a growing number of black leaders understand the link between environmental and civil rights. Jesse Jackson made the environment a major issue in his 1988 campaign. The United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice published the landmark study “Toxic Waste and Race.”

Environmentalists have also become more sensitive to minority concerns. Greenpeace played a significant role in supporting a bill by Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) to prevent toxic-waste dumping in Africa and the Third World.

Rather than accepting old arguments that conservation costs jobs, civil-rights leaders should ensure that minorities get their fair share of opportunities in recycling and other emerging industries, and take a stand protecting the environment. Stephenson sums up the situation: “This environment is as much ours as it is theirs. We have to be concerned with the greenhouse effect and clean air. Our people are suffering the most and we have to get out in front.”