he environmental movement in the United States emerged with agendas that focused on such areas as wilderness and wildlife preservation, resource conservation, pollution abatement, and population control. It was supported primarily by middle- and upper-middle-class whites. Although concern about the environment cut across racial and class lines, environmental activism has been most pronounced among individuals who have above-average education, greater access to economic resources, and a greater sense of personal efficacy.1
Mainstream environmental organizations were late in broadening their base of support to include blacks and other minorities, the poor, and working-class persons. The “energy crisis” in the 1970s provided a major impetus for the many environmentalists to embrace equity issues confronting the poor in this country and in the countries of the Third World.2
Over the years, environmentalism has shifted from a “participatory” to a “power” strategy, where the “core of active environmental movement is focused on litigation, political lobbying, and technical evaluation rather than on mass mobilization for protest marches.”3
An abundance of documentation shows blacks, lower-income groups, and working-class persons are subjected to a disproportionately large amount of pollution and other environmental stressors in their neighborhoods as well as in their workplaces.4
However, these groups have only been marginally involved in the nation’s environmental movement. Problems facing the black community have been topics of much discussion in recent years. (Here, we use sociologist James Blackwell’s definition of the black community, “a highly diversified set of interrelated structures and
aggregates of people who are held together by forces of white oppression and racism.”5
) Race has not been eliminated as a factor in the allocation of community amenities.
Research on environmental quality in black communities has been minimal. Attention has been focused on such problems as crime, drugs, poverty, unemployment, and family crisis. Nevertheless, pollution is exacting a heavy toll (in health and environmental costs) on black communities across the nation. There are few studies that document, for example, the way blacks cope with environmental stressors such as municipal solid-waste facilities, hazardous-waste landfills, toxic-waste dumps, chemical emissions from industrial plants, and on-the-job hazards that pose extreme risks to their health. Coping in this case is seen as a response to stress and is defined as “efforts, both action-oriented and intrapsychic, to manage, i.e., master, tolerate, reduce, minimize, environmental and internal demands, conflicts among then, which tax or exceed a person’s resources.”6
Coping strategies employed by individuals confronted with a stressor are of two general types: problem-focused coping
(e.g., individual and/or group efforts to directly address the problem) and emotion-focused coping
(e.g., efforts to control one’s psychological response to the stressor). The decision to take direct action or to tolerate a stressor often depends on how individuals perceive their ability to do something about or have an impact on the stressful situation. Personal efficacy, therefore, is seen as a factor that affects environmental and political activism.7
Much research has been devoted to analyzing social movements in the United States. For example, hundreds of volumes have been written in the past several years on the environmental, labor, antiwar, and civil rights movements. Despite this wide coverage, there is a dearth of material on the convergence (and the divergence, for that matter) of environmentalism and social justice advocacy. This appears to be the case in and out of academia. Moreover, few social scientists have studied environmentalism among blacks and other ethnic minorities. This oversight is rooted in historical and ideological factors and in the composition of the core environmental movement and its largely white middle-class profile.
Many of the interactions that emerged among core environmentalists, the poor, and blacks can be traced to distributional equity questions. How are the benefits and burdens of environmental reform distributed? Who gets what, where, and why? Are environmental inequities a result of racism or class barriers or a combination of both? After more than two decades of modern environmentalism, the equity issues have not been resolved. There has been, however, some change in the way environmental problems are presented by mainstream environmental organizations. More important, environmental equity has now become a major item on the local (grassroots) as well as national civil rights agenda.8
Much of the leadership in the civil rights movement came from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Black college students were on the “cutting edge” in leading sit-in demonstrations at lunch counters, libraries, parks, and public transit systems that operated under Jim Crow laws. In The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement, Aldon D. Morris wrote:
The tradition of protest is transmitted across generations by older relatives, black institutions, churches, and protest organizations. Blacks interested in social change inevitably gravitate to this “protest community,” where they hope to find solutions to a complex problem.
The modern civil rights movement fits solidly into this rich tradition of protest. Like the slave revolts, the Garvey Movement, and the March on Washington, it was highly organized. Its significant use of the black religious community to accomplish political goals also linked the modern movement to the earlier mass movements which also relied heavily on the church.9
Social justice and the elimination of institutionalized discrimination were the major goals of the civil rights movement. Many of the HBCUs are located in some of the most environmentally polluted communities in the nation. These institutions and their students, thus, have a vested interest in seeing that improvements are made in local environmental quality. Unlike their move to challenge other forms of inequity, black student-activists have been conspicuously silent and relatively inactive on environmental problems. Moreover, the resources and talents of the faculties at these institutions have also been underutilized in assisting affected communities in their struggle against polluters, including government and private industries.
The problem of polluted black communities is not a new phenomenon. Historically, toxic dumping and the location of locally unwanted land uses (LULUs) have followed the “path of least resistance,” meaning black and poor communities have been disproportionately burdened with these types of externalities. However, organized black resistance to toxic dumping, municipal waste facility siting, and discriminatory environmental and land-use decisions is a relatively recent phenomenon.10
Black environmental concern has been present but too often has not been followed up with action.
Ecological concern has remained moderately high across nearly all segments of the population. Social equity and concern about distributive impacts, however, have not fared so well over the years. Low-income and minority communities have had few advocates and lobbyists at the national level and within the mainstream environmental movement. Things are changing as environmental problems become more “potent political issues [and] become increasingly viewed as threatening public health.”11
The environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s, dominated by the middle class, built an impressive political base for environmental reform and regulatory relief. Many environmental problems of the 1980s and 1990s, however, have social impacts that differ somewhat from earlier ones. Specifically, environmental problems have had serious regressive impacts. These impacts have been widely publicized in the media, as in the case of the hazardous-waste problems at Love Canal and Times Beach. The plight of polluted minority communities is not as well known as the New York and Missouri tragedies. Nevertheless, a disproportionate burden of pollution is carried by the urban poor and minorities.12
Few environmentalists realized the sociological implications of the not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) phenomenon.13
Given the political climate of the times, the hazardous wastes, garbage dumps, and polluting industries were likely to end up in somebody’s backyard. But whose backyard? More often than not, these LULUs ended up in poor, powerless, black communities rather than in affluent suburbs. This pattern has proven to be the rule, even though the benefits derived from industrial waste production are directly related to affluence.14
Public officials and private industry have in many cases responded to the NIMBY phenomenon using the place-in-blacks’-backyard (PIBBY) principle.15
Social activists have begun to move environmentalism to the left in an effort to address some of the distributional impact and equity issues.16
Documentation of civil rights violations has strengthened the move to make environmental quality a basic right of all individuals. Rising energy costs and a continued erosion of the economy’s ability to provide jobs (but not promises) are factors that favor blending the objectives of labor, minorities, and other “underdogs” with those of middle-class environmentalists.17
Although ecological sustainability and socioeconomic equality have not been fully achieved, there is clear evidence that the 1980s ushered in a new era of cooperation between environmental and social justice groups. While there is by no means a consensus on complex environmental problems, the converging points of view represent the notion that “environmental problems and … material problems have common roots.”18
When analyzing the convergence of these groups, it is important to note the relative emphasis that environmental and social justice organizations give to “instrumental” versus “expressive” activities.19
Environmental organizations have relied heavily on environmentally oriented expressive activities (outdoor recreation, field trips, social functions, etc.), while the social justice movements have made greater use of goal-oriented instrumental activities (protest demonstrations, mass rallies, sit-ins, boycotts, etc.) in their effort to produce social change.20
The push for environmental equity in the black community has much in common with the development of the modern civil rights movement that
began in the South. That is, protest against discrimination has evolved from “organizing efforts of activists functioning through a well-developed indigenous base.”21
Indigenous black institutions, organizations, leaders, and networks are coming together against polluting industries and discriminatory environmental policies. This book addresses this new uniting of backs against institutional barriers of racism and classism.
Social scientists agree that a multidimensional web of factors operate in sorting out stratification hierarchies. These factors include occupation, education, value of dwellings, source and amount of income, type of dwelling structures, government and private industry policies, and racial and ethnic makeup of residents.22
Unfortunately, American society has not reached a color-blind state. What role does race play in sorting out land uses? Race continues to be a potent variable in explaining the spatial layout of urban areas, including housing patterns, street and highway configurations, commercial development, and industrial facility siting.
Houston, Texas, the nation’s fourth largest city, is a classic example of an area where race has played an integral part in land-use outcomes and municipal service delivery.23
As late as 1982, there were neighborhoods in Houston that still did not have paved streets, gas and sewer connections, running water, regular garbage service, and street markers. Black and Hispanic neighborhoods were far more likely to have service deficiencies than their white counterparts. One of the neighborhoods (Bordersville) was part of the land annexed for the bustling Houston Intercontinental Airport. Another area, Riceville, was a stable black community located in the city’s sprawling southwest corridor, a mostly white sector that accounted for nearly one-half of Houston’s housing construction in the 1970s.
The city’s breakneck annexation policy stretched municipal services thin. Newly annexed unincorporated areas, composed of mostly whites, often gained at the expenses of older minority areas. How does one explain the service disparities in this modern Sunbelt city? After studying the Houston phenomenon for nearly a decade, I have failed to turn up a single case of a white neighborhood (low- or middle-income) in the city that was systematically denied basic municipal services. The significance of race may have declined, but racism has not disappeared when it comes to allocating scarce resources.
Do middle-income blacks have the same mobility options that are available to their white counterparts? The answer to this question is no. Blacks have made tremendous economic and political gains in the past three
decades with the passage of equal opportunity initiatives at the federal level. Despite legislation, court orders, and federal mandates, institutional racism and discrimination continue to influence the quality of life in many of the nation’s black communities.24
The differential residential amenities and land uses assigned to black and white residential areas cannot be explained by class alone. For example, poor whites and poor blacks do not have the same opportunities to “vote with their feet.” Racial barriers to education, employment, and housing reduce mobility options available to the black underclass and the black middle class.25
Housing is a classic example of this persistent problem. Residential options available to blacks have been shaped largely by (I) federal housing policies, (2) institutional and individual discrimination in housing markets, (3) geographic changes that have taken place in the nation’s urban centers, and (4) limited incomes. Federal policies, for example, played a key role in the development of spatially differentiated metropolitan areas where blacks and other visible minorities are segregated from whites, and the poor from the more affluent citizens.26
Government housing policies fueled the white exodus to the suburbs and accelerated the abandonment of central cities. Federal tax dollars funded the construction of freeway and interstate highway systems. Many of these construction projects cut paths through minority neighborhoods, physically isolated residents from their institutions, and disrupted once-stable communities. The federal government is the “proximate and essential cause of urban apartheid” in t...