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The Environment of Social Justice

There’s a significantly higher concentration of environmental hazards and degradation in black communities, but no leaders to work toward solutions.
Brownfields. (Photo: Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH/Shutterstock)

Brownfields. (Photo: Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH/Shutterstock)

What’s one of the biggest security challenges in the black community? If you’ve been following the news, you probably think it’s related to bias-based policing or criminal justice.

Here’s a challenge you may not have heard about: the dearth of black environmental leadership. African Americans comprise 12 percent of the nation’s population but all of the communities of color combined (i.e., 38 percent of society) hold only 12 percent of the leadership positions in environmental organizations—both inside and outside the government. That’s not just a problem for blacks, but for our entire society.

It’s easy to see why the disparity is a big problem for the black community: perhaps as a consequence of this lack of leadership, there’s a significantly higher concentration of environmental hazards and degradation in black communities, from more toxics-releasing facilities and air pollution in general to more brownfields (real estate that has been contaminated by a pollutant of some kind, and cannot be re-used until it has been completely remediated). This pollution in black communities drives up morbidity, stress, and mortality statistics while driving down neighborhood economic investment, political clout, social capital, school performance, and community pride.

Environmental degradation and attendant health impacts in black communities through concentrated pollution are likely on their way to other communities through climate change.

But why, exactly, is this a problem for those of us who are not black, or do not live in a predominantly black neighborhood? Because environmental issues metastasize, and because we can’t expect to innovate solutions without bringing to bear a diversity of perspectives, particularly from people who have vastly different lived experiences. African Americans who grew up in certain communities may have a deeper understanding of the real-life impacts of environmental degradation, allowing them to craft better policies for all of us.

Law professors Lani Guinier of Harvard and Gerald Torres of Cornell, using the metaphor of canaries in mines, describe what happens to blacks in America as a portent of what is likely to happen to middle- and working-class whites. Environmental degradation and attendant health impacts in black communities through concentrated pollution are likely on their way to other communities through climate change. Black communities may suffer earlier and more intensely from the ills of social inequality but they are eventually manifested in other communities that perhaps thought they were somehow immune. There is no substitute for African Americans’ perspectives on environmental policies that are informed by both their lived experience and their grasp and application of scientific knowledge.

We’ve seen some modest policy wins under the Obama administration. Americans’ health will likely be improved as a result of its requirement to reduce mercury emissions and other poisons from some 1,400 fossil fuel power stations. And in 2013 the administration tightened restrictions on carbon dioxide emissions, resulting in a reduction of over 35 percent. What’s more, new coal facilities can be built only if they are able to capture and store on the order of 30 percent of their emissions. But elections have consequences; these environmental policy gains can be reversed in the future by politicians who are supported by relentless fossil fuel concerns. Americans need a healthy dose of rough and tumble politics of energy and the environment.

Some of the worst environmental offenders remain at large: Industrial polluters who, like other “corporate citizens” want to be regulated and taxed substantially less while being subsidized significantly more. Corporations seek to appropriate nature for private gain while the costs of environmental abuse are shared among all of us. As Oil Change International notes, the public bears externalized costs of fossil fuel industries for the military, climate, local environmental, and health to the tune of at least $360 billion and upwards of $1 trillion annually.

And the fossil fuel sector is determined to delay the point when renewables are cost competitive with fossil fuel-based electricity. One strategy used by fossil fuel advocates includes removing statutes that call for states and municipalities to have a specified share of electricity within their jurisdiction be supplied by renewable sources. For example, Ohio-based energy companies such as American Electric Power and FirstEnergy, together with fossil fuel-backed entities like the American Legislative Exchange Council and Americans for Prosperity successfully helped produce a bill (SB 310) that Ohio Governor Kasich signed into law in June of last year. The bill delays annual increases in the share of renewables as part of the overall supply of electricity for the state and energy efficiency for two years. Derivatives of this strategy are taking root in many of the remaining 29 states with statutes to increase renewable energy usage.

If we don’t elect or appoint more leaders who have lived the impact of such policies, we’re putting our collective future at risk. But the next question is: Where are the African American environmental leaders? Is this a bias problem—in other words, qualified African American candidates not being promoted or elected—or a pipeline problem—not enough African Americans engaged in the field?

It’s likely related to both factors, but the latter is somewhat easier to solve systemically.

There are two institutional approaches to engage more blacks on the issues of climate, energy, the environment, and social justice– through historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and Africana Studies programs at other universities. Only about a quarter of the 100 HBCUs have some type of environmental studies program. And although only nine percent of black college students matriculate at HBCUs, these institutions have a unique platform to bend campus-wide attention around environmental matters in part because of their smaller size. Just as all HBCU students learn about the black experience while studying various subject matters, they all can also learn about how environmental issues pose the most significant challenge and present the biggest opportunities of the 21st century.

As for Africana or African American Studies, there are over 250 such programs around the country, primarily at predominantly white institutions (PWIs). PWIs are also home to the nation’s largest and well-resourced environmental academic programs. Essentially all research-intensive and top liberal arts PWIs have at least one environmental studies program. Generally, black students do not enroll in environmental studies courses on PWI campuses but they do tend to enroll in some number of Africana Studies courses.

At present, less than five percent of Africana Studies academic units and professors identify the environment, climate change, or energy as their prioritized area of research and engagement. Similarly, less than five percent of Africana Studies courses take up these subjects.

My suggestion to African Studies professors: Use your classes and curricula as a platform to discuss issues concerning climate, energy, the environment—all intimately related to the topic of social justice, which is entwined through many Africana Studies lectures already. And for HBCUs: Create and strengthen environmental degree programs and staff them with leading academics in the field. After all, today’s black students are tomorrow’s black intellectuals and engaged citizens. If more of them can become leaders in the epic struggle to steer society toward sustainability, we’ll all be better off.

This post originally appeared in New America’s digital magazine, The Weekly Wonk, a Pacific Standard partner site. Sign up to get The Weekly Wonk delivered to your inbox, and follow @NewAmerica on Twitter.