How 600 years of environmental violence continue to harm black communities

For more than five years there has been a water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Meanwhile, in White Hall, Alabama, residents live with raw sewage because basic sanitation is not affordable. The fifth district of Saint James Parish in Louisiana is known as “cancer alley.” The concentration of industrial petrochemical plants there causes high rates of cancer among local residents.

All of these cases are in predominantly black areas. Studies show that black people are 75% more likely to live near oil and gas refineries, and black Americans face higher risks of premature death from pollution from power plants.

Teenagers play basketball at the Carver Terrace housing project near a Valero refinery in Port Arthur, Texas in November 2013.

Eric Kayne for Earthjustice

While these are examples of modern injustices affecting black communities, they are born out of environmental exclusion and violence that began hundreds of years ago. Below are examples from this history that together reveal a nefarious pattern that environmental justice movements face to this day.

Create a white planet

After more than 600 years, the ripple effects of the Age of Exploration continue to reverberate throughout society. The travels and actions of Christopher Columbus and other European colonialists led to some of the most significant geographic and social transformations of the modern era.

Within 100 years, nearly 60 million Native American Indians died from foreign diseases, displacement, and wars waged against them by European settlers. During this period, more than 12 million Africans were forcibly transported to work as slaves in the United States and across the Americas.

These events changed the physical landscape of the Americas, altered global commerce, and intensified the massive extraction of the earth’s natural resources.

Archival photograph of enslaved workers on a plantation in South Carolina on April 8, 1862.

Enslaved laborers plant sweet potatoes on a plantation in South Carolina on April 8, 1862.

Henry P. Moore/Library of Congress

Without the help of native populations, European settlers would not have been able to adapt to the American topography. Likewise, agricultural knowledge and skills from tropical Africa were crucial for European settlers to successfully build plantation economies. European settlers appropriated the skills and information of enslaved Native Americans and Africans, but largely omitted these contributions from historical records.

For centuries, black people have been prevented from defining our relationship to this land. Through government policies, economic institutions, and individual behaviors, black people have been denied a safe and healthy environment.

Homesteads law

In 1862, the Homestead Act gave European settlers up to 160 acres of unceded native land on the condition that they live on it, claim it, and improve it. At the time, most black people were still legally enslaved, and 90% of Native people were wiped out – none were considered citizens. As a result, only European settlers could take advantage of this legislation which then created wealth for their families for future generations.

The Buffalo Soldiers

File photo of Buffalo Soldiers of the 25th Infantry at Fort Keogh, Mont.  December 14, 1890.

Buffalo Soldiers from the 25th Infantry pictured at Fort Keogh, Mont. December 14, 1890.

chr. Barthelmess/Library of Congress

As early as 1866, after Yosemite Valley was established as a protected wilderness, a few national parks were overseen by the Buffalo Soldiers – the all-black cavalry and infantry regiments of the U.S. Army who were, among other duties, stationed in national parks across the Midwest and West. They were among the first Park Rangers.

Despite this, national parks were not safe for African Americans, as lynching was widespread, and most national parks denied entry to blacks anyway. Prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, people of color were legally excluded (or separated) from public recreation sites, including national and state parks, beaches, gardens, and lakes.

Continued racial exclusion

File photo of Florida farm workers standing by their car on the side of a North Carolina road on their way to work on a New Jersey farm in 1940.

Florida farm workers, photographed near Shawboro, North Carolina, on their way to pick potatoes in Cranberry, NJ, in 1940.

Jack Delano/US Farm Security Administration via Library of Congress

Even after slavery was made illegal, black people were still deprived of their rights to own land and enjoy the great outdoors. This denial of opportunity has come in many forms: racial terror perpetrated by the Klu Klux Klan, seeing their lands poisoned and burned, government policies of exclusion, being denied aid after natural disasters and not receiving loans for their farms.

These diverse experiences made it difficult for black people to own, keep and cultivate land. As a result, between 1916 and 1970, 6 million black people migrated from the rural South to urban centers in the Midwest, West, and Northeast for more economic opportunities created by the World Wars. Even when black families began settling in urban centers, they still faced environmental racism.

Environmentalism will only succeed by recognizing that injustices against Black and Indigenous people occur alongside the destruction of the earth.

Exclusionary urbanism and predatory banking practices emerged as black migration altered the demographics of American cities. Black people have been forced to live in the most undesirable areas, in neighborhoods that cities have divested – near industrial sites. The conditions in which black people lived, along with exclusion from outdoor recreational spaces, led to the coalescence of the environmental justice movement.

This movement brought us key environmental laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 paved the way by prohibiting racial discrimination in all activities that receive federal funds, including national parks. The growing mainstream environmental movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s was very different from this, although influenced by some of the organization and tactics used by its predecessor.

A movement for the privileged

Left: Members of the Sierra Club pose at the rim of the Grand Canyon in 1966, holding signs reading

Left: Members of the Sierra Club hold ‘Save Grand Canyon’ signs on the rim of the Canyon in 1966. Right: Members of the Havasupai tribe and other conservationists rally to stop mining in the Grand Canyon before the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco, California, in 2016.

Arthur Schatz/The LIFE Image Collection via Getty Images, Chris Jordan-Bloch/Earthjustice

The environmental movement was once primarily composed and defined by middle-class white Americans advocating for the protection of wilderness, animals, and other things that were luxuries to be enjoyed.

This type of environmentalism ignores the degradation of environments and the absence of green spaces in places inhabited by black and indigenous populations. He failed to recognize how colonialism and racism justify putting profit before people, natural places and ecosystems. Despite political advances such as the Wilderness Act and the Endangered Species Act, this was a movement based on privilege.

A planet for all of us

Participants in the first National People of Color Leadership Summit hold a rally at the United States Capitol in Washington, DC, in 1991.

Participants in the first National People of Color Leadership Summit hold a rally at the United States Capitol in Washington, DC, in 1991.

Courtesy of Robert Bullard

In October 1991, the first National People of Color Leadership Summit was held in Washington, DC. This summit recognized and brought to the fore the leadership of Black, Brown and Indigenous peoples in protecting our environments and natural places. At this peak, 17 principles of environmental justice were drafted and adopted.

These principles remain relevant today, as the impacts of histories of exclusion and environmental violence continue to influence communities of color. A 2018 report indicated that black Americans constitute less than 2% national park visitors, suggesting that our nation’s racial legacies are still strong in the natural places meant for us all.

Environmentalism will only succeed by recognizing that injustices against Black and Indigenous people occur alongside the destruction of the earth. As environmental justice and environmental movements grow to meet, we need to consider the past so that we don’t replicate it in the future.

Supporting organizations fighting for environmental, racial and political justice helps create a sustainable planet for all of us.

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