MLK and Environmental Justice
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MLK and Environmental Justice

Environmental Justice Blog: “If Rev Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. was alive today he would be an environmental justice activist.”

Perhaps. MLK went to Memphis in 1968 on a mission for black garbage workers demanding equal pay and better work conditions. He was killed before he got there. 15 years later, black activists would stop a hazardous waste landfill in Warren County, North Carolina, often pointed to as the beginning of the environmental justice movement.

Are the two related? Sure. Martin transformed civil rights, and his agenda might have included environmental justice eventually. But I think his priority (like that of his protégé, the Rev. Jesse Jackson) was always people, not pollution.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. (read on…)

And I don’t think that’s changed much. This more current bit (2000) on environmental justice in the African American community by black liberation theologian James Cone is illuminating.**

Until recently, the ecological crisis has not been a major theme in the liberation movements in the African American community. “Blacks don’t care about the environment” is a typical comment by white ecologists. Racial and economic justice has been at best only a marginal concern in the mainstream environmental movement. “White people care more about the endangered whale and the spotted owl than they do about the survival of young blacks in our nation’s cities” is a well-founded belief in the African American community. Justice fighters for blacks and the defenders of the earth have tended to ignore each other in their public discourse and practice. Their separation from each other is unfortunate because they are fighting the same enemy — human beings’ domination of each other and nature.

The leaders in the mainstream environmental movement are mostly middle- and upper-class whites who are unprepared culturally and intellectually to dialogue with angry blacks. The leaders in the African American community are leery of talking about anything with whites that will distract from the menacing reality of racism. What both groups fail to realize is how much they need each other in the struggle for “justice, peace and the integrity of creation.”

Keep reading:

Do we have any reason to believe that the culture most responsible for the ecological crisis will also provide the moral and intellectual resources for the earth’s liberation? White ethicists and theologians apparently think so, since so much of their discourse about theology and the earth is just talk among themselves. But I have a deep suspicion about the theological and ethical values of white culture and religion. For five hundred years whites have acted as if they owned the world’s resources and have forced people of color to accept their scientific and ethical values. [snip]

If we save the planet and have a society of inequality, we wouldn’t have saved much.

He affirms these thoughts in a 2004 interview here, adding this striking bit:

Most of the toxic dumps are in places where people don’t have resources to fight against them, usually black communities…

That’s an interesting statement. Wonder if it’s true? I did. In a very non-scientific analysis I wanted to see whether toxic waste is going to predominately black or white cities. I opened up the 2005 EPA National Biennial RCRA Hazardous Waste Report and picked the top two “receivers,” the largest hazardous waste treatment and disposal facilities (what Cone calls “toxic dumps”) in each state. Then I checked out the demographic data for each of those cities.

The first two cities had by far the majority of waste disposed of in each state, so I think it’s a fair description of where most of our waste goes. Also, some states are higher waste generators but ship their waste out of state, so this list shows where toxic waste is disposed of – again, paying attention to Cone’s concern. States that don’t have TSDFs are listed as N/A; some states only had one. The amount disposed of in tons is in (). The % is black population, and if I couldn’t find data I noted that.

Here’s what I came up with. The national average for black population is 12.35%, and cities under that average are in bold.

[Note: Ignore breaks in the list; just the way the list formatted. They don’t mean anything.]

AL Emelle (58,840 tons) 76%
Attalla (23,801 tons) 13%
AK Anchorage (144) 6%
Elmendorf AFB (4) 10%
AZ Tolleson (26,155) 1.3%
Coolidge (3,827) 8.6%

AR Foreman (98,201) 25%
Benton (78,115) 4%

CA Compton (1,233,500) 40%
City of Industry (174,574) 4%
CO Henderson (17,599) 4%
Deer Trail (4,315) 0%
CT Bristol (9,743) 2.5%
Meriden (7,276) 7%

DE Wilmington (373) 56%
FL Bartow (6,781) 27%
Orlando (3,446) 26%
GA Valdosta (4,203) 49%
Morrow (900) 42%
HI Navy PWC (400) 10%
ID Grand View (113,188) 0%
Mayfield (22,672) 0%

IL Chicago (179,472) 36%
Peoria (103,619) 25%
IN Indianapolis (94,677) 25%
Butler (62,562) 0%
IA Davenport (262) 9%
Des Moines (174) 8%
KS Fredonia (144,138) 0.1%
Chanute (48,646) 1.1%
KY Smithfield (47,589) 0%
Calvert City (18,173) 0%

LA Waggaman (141,885) 54%
Sulphur (99,790) 3.2%
ME South Portland (2,214) 0.4%
Leeds (167) 0.1%

MD Baltimore (127,125) 63%
Forest Hill (9) 3%
MA Braintree (18,110) 1%
Lowell (5,027) 4.2%
MI Belleville (196,057) 6%

Detroit (77,358) 81%
MN Eagan (267,034) 4%
Cottage Grove (26,298) 2.5%

MS Artesia (55,961) 85%
Jackson (735) 70%
MO Hannibal (69,375) 6%
Cape Girardeau (62,277) 9%

NE Kimball (35,336) 0.2%
Fairbury (333) 0.1%
NV Beatty (51,464) 0%
Fernley (8,299) 0%
NJ Deepwater (61,173) 0%
Middlesex (49,258) 3.5%
NM Carlsbad (8,434) 2.6%
Albuquerque (437) 3.1%

NY Middletown (158,520) 14.3%
Model City (74,423) 6%

NC Durham (46,932) 44%
Geidsville (18,266) Unk%
ND Belfield (351) 1.2%
Bismarck (141) 0.3%
OH Oregon (232,602) 1.1%
Vickery (97,134) 1.2%
OK Waynoka (44,207) 2.5%
Mcalester (3,283) 8.2%
OR Arlington (90,892) 0%
Hermiston (1,882) 0.9%
PA Palmerton (224,632) 0.2%
Bath (65,449) 2.6%
RI Cranston (33,672) 3.2%

Providence (4,894) 13.8%
SC Holly HIll (68,849) 52%
Sumter (48,087) 47%
SD Sioux Falls (133) 1.8%

TN Millington (21,002) 22.9%
Oak Ridge (1,150) 7.8%
TX Deer Park (104,389) 1.1%

Channelview (83,414) 12.8%
UT Grantsville (86,149) 0.2%
Aragonite (51,760) 0%
VT Barre (195) 0.4%
Burlington (28) 1.9%

VA Arvonia (45,321) 58%
Chesapeake (448) 28%
WA Kent (17,325) 8%
Tacoma (13,831) 11.2%
WV Morgantown (5,285) 4%

Natrium (4,374) Unk%
WI Menomonee Falls (21,244) 1.7%
Eau Claire (15,917) 0.6%
WY None

63 cities are under the national average for black population, and 27 cities are over it. What’s more, major disposal sites like the one in Compton CA are ranked by as among the cleanest in the United States and are regulated by Cal EPA and EPA Region 9, who manage the most progressive and heavily-enforced waste disposal program in the world.

Like I said – unscientific. It’s certainly possible for example that these disposal sites are located in predominately black areas within each city (for those cities that actually have predominately black areas). But it does seem like there are a lot of “dumps” that don’t fit his generalization. Instead, TSDFs are located in nearly every state and in cities that vary widely in their socioeconomics; only one out of every three is predominately black.

So what’s the point? Christians like Professor Cone, the Rev. Al Sharpton and I have all been drawn to Psalm 24:1 for a reason – it proclaims that the earth is in fact the Lords. It doesn’t belong to mankind. And if any family or community or poor or wealthy or black or white person is drinking polluted water or breathing polluted air, we still have work to do on His behalf.

Rather than using ecology in a “disciplined and sustained fight against white supremacy,” (and calling Christians who don’t do so racist), we should use our common love for God and stewardship for God’s creation as a means of getting past the sorts of suspicions that Cone feels so deeply.

Perhaps one day all those who care for God’s creation will not be judged by the color of our skin as Brother Martin put it, but by the content of our character.

[Don’s other habitat is The Evangelical Ecologist]

**[Disclaimer: I was drawn to Cone because he is a black theologian writing on the environmental movement. I want to be clear I’m not judging black Christian ecologists across the board the way many find one Dominionist and use his statements to describe all Christians.]