Saturday March on Washington: A call for environmental justice

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August 28, 2013 will mark the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, which attracted hundreds of thousands to D.C. to call for economic equality. It was officially titled the “March for Jobs and Freedom,” but as people convene in the nation’s capital this weekend to commemorate the ’63 event with a new march, they will find that the scope of the original march demands have grown.

In addition to expanding to cover the needs of women and members of the LGBT community, the list of official “talking points” for the march on Saturday, organized by the National Action Network, now includes a call for greater environmental justice.

Environmentalism is colorblind

“If Dr. King were alive, he would say we want equal protection from environmental harms like pollution, poison, toxins in the water, and bad food products,” African-American environmental advocate and civil rights activist Van Jones told theGrio. “He would also say we want equal opportunity to the environmental benefits of organic food, solar panels, and clean energy, air, and water.”

Many people consider environmental movements to be “for white people,” and the ability to demand the type of safe environment Jones describes to be a product of white privilege. Most activists fighting global warming, pollution, and calling for food safety are often portrayed as white Americans holding picket signs in school cafeterias, or risking their lives at sea to save whales.

Studies show, however, that environmental hazards disproportionally plague communities of color. In 2005, the Associated Press reported that African-Americans are 79 percent more likely than whites to live in neighborhoods where industrial pollution is suspected of posing the greatest health danger.

In 1994, President Bill Clinton issued an executive order aimed at preventing minority communities from suffering from adverse environmental burdens, but nearly ten years later, environmental justice issues continued to persist, as detailed by the AP story.

This is why the call for environmental equality is an important addition to the list of issues related to Saturday’s march, experts say.

“Black people have just as much as a claim on these issues as any other racial group,” said Jones. “It’s an absurd form of racism on our part to pretend that the only folks who have ever cared about the Earth and God’s creation are white people.”

The history of black environmental justice

In 1982, Dr. Benjamin Chavis, Jr., co-Founder of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network and a former youth coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, coined the term “environmental racism” to refer to racial discrimination resulting from the disproportionate exposure of racial minorities to hazardous environments. These hazards include close proximity to waste treatment centers, landfills, and coal plants that produce toxic air pollutants, and the tendency for communities of color to be situated in disaster-prone areas.

One of the first environmental justice protests to gain national recognition was led by Dr. Chavis. In 1982, Chavis protested the burial of Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a classified toxic pollutant, in poor, rural African-American communities.