Environmental Racism in the US

2016 Book of Resolutions, #1025

Theological Background

“If you do away with the yoke of oppression, / with the pointing finger and malicious talk / and if you spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry / and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, / then your light will rise in the darkness, / and your night will become like the noonday.”

—Isaiah 58:9-10 NIV

We are further called both in Leviticus and by our Lord Jesus Christ to love our neighbors as ourselves. When we turn from this divine will, we as a broken people promote systems that are unjust and inequitable. One manifestation of these injustices is the persistent problem of environmental racism, defined as the disproportionate toxic and industrial contamination in neighborhoods where people of color live, work, worship, and play.

The United Methodist Church (UMC) is committed to understanding and eliminating environmental racism. In the United States, the extraction, production, storage, treatment, and disposal processes of hazardous materials and wastes are too often zoned within close proximity to where people of color live. Yet, African American, Hispanic-Latino North Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and non-citizens in the US are usually the least able—politically and economically—to affect the political institutions that make the decisions that allow this to happen. People of color also disproportionately suffer from the lack of public health protections in the current economy. From the founding of the United States, people of color were seen as less entitled to healthy work and environment than those of European descent. European culture, with its domesticated animals, exploitative resource extraction, mono-cropping, and mass production, was perceived as the only way America could advance. And the rich tradition of Native Americans’ stewardship of their environment was demolished in the quest for land ownership.

US cities grew during a time of extreme racial inequity; zoning policies were put into place where waste dumps, rail yards, industrial centers, ports, and sewer systems developed out of pro- portion around communities of color.

The birth of the environmental justice movement can be traced to the 1982 historic protest in Warren County, North Carolina. More than 500 people were arrested for blocking a shipment of toxic waste (PCBs) to a landfill located in the predominantly African American county. This action was followed in 1987 by the United Church of Christ, Commission for Racial Justice’s land- mark report, Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States. This report- established that race—rather than poverty, land value, or home ownership—is the most reliable predictor of proximity to hazardous waste sites in the United States. In 1992, the National Law Journal published “Unequal Protection,” a study that uncovered racial disparities in the enforcement of environmental protection laws. It highlighted a “racial divide in the way the US government cleans up toxic waste sites and punishes polluters.” According to the report, “white communities see faster action, better results and stiffer penalties than communities where blacks, Hispanics and other minorities live. This unequal protection often occurs whether the community is wealthy or poor.”

In 2007, Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty: 1987-2007 was published by the United Church of Christ, Justice and Witness Ministries. This report recognized that significant racial and socioeconomic disparities persisted in the distribution of the nation’s commercial hazardous waste facilities. In fact, people of color are found to be more concentrated around hazardous waste facilities than previously shown in the 1987 report.

Here are some of the 2007 report’s statistics:

  • “20.2 percent of those living within one kilometer of a hazardous waste facility are African American while only 11.5 percent of those who live beyond five kilome- ters (3.1 miles) of a hazardous waste facility are African American.“
  • “23.1 percent of those who live within one kilometer of a hazardous waste facility are Latino; yet, only 7.8 per- cent of those who live beyond those five kilometers are Hispanic.” -“When facilities are clustered together, as in urban areas, African Americans comprise 29 percent of the surround- ing population, and 16 percent of the population when there is a single facility.”
  • “Hispanics make up 33 percent of the population where there are multiple hazardous waste facilities and 25 per- cent of the population where there is a single facility.”
  • “Host neighborhoods of commercial hazardous waste facilities are 56 percent people of color whereas non-host areas are 30 percent people of color. Percentages of Afri- can Americans, Hispanics/Latinos and Asians/Pacific Islanders in host neighborhoods (vs. non-host areas) are 1.7, 2.3, and 1.8 times greater. Poverty rates in the host neighborhoods are 1.5 times greater than non-host areas. (Statistics are from Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty: 1987-2007. Toxic Race and Waste at 20, 1987-2007 can be found at: churchofchrist/legacy_url/491/toxic-wastes-and-race -at-twenty-1987-2007.pdf?1418423933).

Since then, more reports have come to emphasize that race matters when it comes to a community’s environmental health.

People of color and persons of low socioeconomic status are still disproportionately impacted and are particularly concentrated in neighborhoods and communities with the greatest number of toxic and hazardous facilities. A growing body of research suggests that maternal exposure to environmental toxicants poses a risk not only to the mother’s health but to fetal and child health and development, too. These same persons often have substandard health care. Without adequate health care, communities of color are at even more risk.

Not only are people of color differentially impacted by toxic wastes and contamination, they can expect different responses from the government when it comes to building resilience after an environmental disaster or remediation. This can be clearly seen during and after Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy, and in the toxic waste remediation efforts in Dickson County, Tennessee. People of color and communities of color receive sluggish attention to their concerns. It appears that neither existing environmental, health, and civil rights laws, nor local land use controls have been adequately applied or adapted toward the reduction of health risks or the mitigation of various adverse impacts to families living in or near toxic “hot spots,” which disproportionately house people of color.

Despite the clear evidence and growing awareness of the con- sequence to everyone’s health from toxic dumping, our society’s attitude toward the production and disposal of hazardous products is one of “out of sight, out of mind.” But “out of sight, out of mind” is most often where the poor and those rendered powerless live and work. These communities have thus become toxic “sacrifice zones.” In short, environmental protection systems are bro- ken, extraordinarily slow to respond and/or fail to provide equal protection to people of color and low-income communities.

While the focus here is on communities of color in the United States, we are aware that environmental racism is a global phenomenon. The displacement of native peoples—be it in Canada, Peru, or Ecuador—in the drive for oil and minerals has destroyed their land, water, and livelihoods; it also threatens to undermine their culture. Communities, regions and entire nations are all impacted by climate changes that have led to typhoons, hurricanes, drought, or rising waters. Nations of the Global South are already more impacted and less prepared to respond to these climate changes. One positive development is an expanding climate justice movement that links the concerns of US communities of color with leaders of international communities of color in resistance to environmental racism.

Therefore, We urge The UMC to make sure that those who have historically experienced environmental racism are at the center of decision making and employment for a just, sustainable, healthy prosperity, and we request that:

  • The Council of Bishops and all boards and agencies, conferences, local churches, and United Methodist (UM) faith communities address environmental racism as a key dimension when addressing either racism or environmental concerns.
  • The General Board of Pension and Health Benefits increase their shareholder activism to hold companies accountable for environmental abuse and unsustainable production practices particularly in those instances where people of color are disproportionately impacted.
  • Annual conferences, districts, local churches, UM faith communities, and general agencies to become more involved with community groups working to end environmental racism, particularly those organizations led by and for those who are directly impacted by the injustices. We urge UM faith communities to increase their support of actions and social movements led by those most impacted by pollutants.
  • The UMC through its Act of Repentance in Annual Conferences and in the Church with native peoples develop respectful, honoring relationships with native peoples and ask the Church to repent of the ways its well-intentioned followers devalued and disrespected native peoples’ deep spirituality and care for the land that sustains us all. It was this deep disrespect that justified the genocide of hundreds of thousands of native peoples in the name of Christianity. We ask that when native peoples’ lands are hurt today by power plants, mining (including coal, gold, copper, coltan, uranium), and garbage dumps (including nuclear waste) or access to clean water that the Church diligently work to reverse the damage and work to ensure that the right of indigenous populations to free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) are transparently honored.
  • The UMC to create sustainable practices throughout all boards, agency offices, and events in order to minimize waste and energy use as a response to injustice in neighborhoods which are in close proximity to incineration plants, garbage dumps, toxic chemical plants, industrial manufacturing, and power plants.
  • The UMC to advocate for jobs in low income areas that are good for the environment and that help eliminate pollutants, toxins, untested chemicals, and greenhouse gasses. Jobs should also maximize energy efficiency and renewable forms of energy. We call on the UMC to ensure that communities currently suffering from economic deprivation be among the first that are hired and trained for these jobs.
  • The GBCS, GBOD, GBGM, and UMW to develop educational resource programs that help annual conferences, districts and local churches respond to these concerns. We urge the people called United Methodists to
  • Advocate comprehensive legislation that remedies these injustices and adequately protects all citizens and the environment;
  • Stand in solidarity with environmental justice movements led by people of color and native peoples who have been adversely impacted by environmental toxins in their neighborhoods;
  • Develop a program of sustainability such as United Methodist Women’s “13 Steps to Sustainability” which measures our adherence to both social justice and envi- ronmental justice principles; and
  • Urge the US government to further develop and close loopholes on mandatory industry-wide standards for environmental accounting and auditing procedures that are publicla shared. Urge governments to hold industry officials responsible—legally, criminally, and financially— for toxic disasters when they erupt from negligence.

AMENDED AND READOPTED 2004, 2008, 2016

See Social Principles, ¶ 160, Book of Discipline; Resolution 1023, “Environmen- tal Justice for a Sustainable Future” (2012 Book of Resolutions); and Resolu- tion 3371, “A Charter for Racial Justice Policies in an Interdependent Global Community.”

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Copyright © 2016, The United Methodist Publishing House, used by permission