Many people from the dominant narrative of the environmental movement have berated populations of color for not taking a more active role in protecting the planet. They depict images of animals and earth, determined to project images of anonymous creatures that deserve to exist, rather than focusing on the human element. Collective amnesia deters activists of color, and inspires more segregated groupings of environmental activists, and the dominant group has failed to develop a lot of self awareness. While assigning environmental negligence to populations of color is not only patently untrue, too many have forgotten the first victims of the cause which they themselves champion: people of color.
First of all, there were zoning ordinances placed in every city that allowed industrial sites to be located almost exclusively in communities of color. To moralize the decision, local government opined that “those people work there anyway,” seeming to think that discrimination and segregation had nothing to do with putting toxic waste around already vulnerable populations. Even now, the perception that people of color choose to live in filth persists because nobody considers how little agency disenfranchised populations were allowed during the development of the country. Therefore, refusing to remember that legacy allows the industrialization of communities of color to continue.
Also, the funny thing about the environment is that there are no closed systems because the entire planet is an ecosystem, meaning that everything is connected to everything else. Why is Standing Rock so important? The North Dakota Pipeline was literally moved to the indigenous lands because other communities wanted to be spared the potential risk of oil spills. What too many of those other communities failed to realize is that if rivers flow — and they do — where the waste starts is irrelevant; all waste can and will eventually reach all areas. Oceans are becoming choked with plastic because so many people believe that the ocean is separate from the rest of the planet.
Finally, environmentalists need to take emotional responsibility for the consequences of assigning toxicity to communities of color. Instead of recognizing that all humans need clean water and air, they and their predecessors made decisions that removed the agency from civil rights organizers and beneficiaries. Those who had power decided that as long as their water, land and air was tolerable, no one else’s water, land, and air was relevant, and not only natural resources but entire communities were destroyed in favor of those selfish decisions. Until that is thoroughly acknowledged by the current environmental activist community, there can be no genuine movement.
Intersectional activism is difficult because society has been engineered to be separate for as long at the country has been in existence. There are no manuals for recognizing that having anyone as a neighbor is a natural consequence of living on a planet with other people. It is possible to restructure the environmental movement to inspire a larger, cohesive community, but real allyship needs to be developed in a way that acknowledges the lack of respect that went unpunished in the past.
Image: New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina: Huge piles of storm debris piled in an industrial area in back of the Lower 9th Ward. The pile at the center is mostly debris in part or whole of metal, including appliances and smashed automobiles, intended for recycling. The pile in the distance to the right is mostly wood from smashed homes. Photo by Infrogmation. CC BY 2.5