My mother has been a water quality advocate for as long as she worked in Texas, so when other kids did science projects based on exploration, my parents took me to the water treatment plant, where I took pictures with a camera that no longer exists, except as a collectible. My father is from Port Arthur, and as we were growing up, my sister and I often remember smelling the oil refineries on the long stretch of highway between Houston and Port Arthur. I recently read a book that explained that it was not just oil refineries, but the massive incinerator that was placed in Port Arthur due to Alabama being the dump for twenty-two of the Lower 48 states.
As a West Austin native, I was raised off the mainstream environmental movement, most acquainted with water and air quality. I have been intentionally taught to appreciate the environment as a friend of my parents confirmed when she said, “I’m not just taking kids camping. I’m raising the next generations of environmentalists!” As one of the few Black kids among my friends, I never realized that there were several kids just like me who were fighting the environmental battles because it affected them every day, rather than as an extracurricular activity.
Burned out from protests, I began to approach my activism by changing my impression of the dominant narrative through reading countless books. Through my research, I learned a lot about my hometown that makes me ashamed to consider the good reputation of some environmental activists over others. In light of the refusal to open schools this year, I wish that the students of color were aware that their neighborhoods were once considered the scourge of society even as those areas were devoured and transformed. I also wish they knew that their elders fought a hard fight to save the air and water before losing the battle to people with money.
Recently, Jamie and I attended an environmental training in Dallas, Texas with people who were looking to acquire data for environmental research around an area called “Shingle Mountain”; both the training and the participation were only possible because I rented a car for the weekend. In a room of mostly Black homeowners in the area, the pair of us were told by the instructor to go to certain sites and take pictures of known polluters in an industrial area, and look for local code violations. I was more than happy to go, because large quantities of data have always been more difficult to acquire for small nonprofits because of cost and labor. Armed with my smart phone and a research partner with surveys, I was prepared to take the most unbiased data I could attain. We had already decided that collecting data as quickly as possible would prevent any bias that might occur.
When we got to the first site, I was ecstatic because everything was close together, so we figured that we would be done in no time. We got out, I took pictures of the property from all angles and the businesses across the street, and Jamie filled out all the data necessary to complete the survey, as she had some previous experience in doing surveys. It seemed like all the businesses were closed for the weekend, and as a trained legal assistant, I made sure that we were never legally on the property so that no one could accuse us of trespassing. I noticed a couple of houses in the pictures, but I paid little attention to them until we crossed the street. After taking more pictures, I noticed that there were more houses, but still paid them no attention.
Our first impression of Shingle Mountain was astonishment. When people talk about a “mountain” of waste, most assume the word to be hyperbole meant to capture attention, unless the conversation is around a landfill. However, this mountain began several feet below street level and rose at least 200 feet above street level and was visible from a quarter of a mile away in a car. I had never seen such high piles of construction waste, and it made me think of urban renewal and all the houses torn down to make way for expensive housing that local residents could almost never afford. Again, I noticed houses, but this time I started to pay attention because the zoning for the area was supposed to be industrial, but it was impossible to ignore more than six houses nestled within all these supposedly intolerable polluters.
At the next site down the street, we saw an auto parts business with a bunch of broken-down vehicles, but the demographer in me could not help but notice that it was a Latino-owned business, and several of the customers also appeared to be Latino. I kept my distance and continued taking pictures, but now I was thinking about the homes and the demographics of the training session—mostly Black participants led by a White instructor. Instead of feeling empowered to take on environmental injustice, I now felt like a White-led nonprofit was instructing Black people to report on Latino people for environmental infractions, thus pitting Black and Latino people against each other.
Anyone who has recently spent more than an hour of time with me would know that I have been studying narcissism, and one of the most noticeable behaviors of narcissists is that they emotionally triangulate people against each other to avoid taking responsibility. Even though most White communities—or as I call them, “character communities”—were staunch in their advocacy of the environment, most character communities have borne none of the environmental costs. Instead, Black and brown communities are forced to bear the brunt of the new highways full of smog, creeks full of industrial spillage, and soil full of nuclear toxins. Furthermore, these business owners were working for society at large, keeping busted cars so that the working class could have affordable auto repairs. Down the street, there was an auto recycling business, and “Cash for Clunkers” is a huge boon to nonprofits, having so many resources that it can consistently advertise on the radio.
Looking back as an adult, I can cringe when I look at some of my first beliefs about what and who were dirty. I came away from that training understanding this: environmental degradation is the biggest threat to human existence, but until society changes so that the “dirty businesses” are no longer needed, Black and brown people should never accept the blame for the problem when character communities have made the choices that created the problems. Either every neighborhood works to change zoning laws and transition businesses into justice for all within that community, or character communities continue to profit off of Black and brown people throwing each other in front of the proverbial bus. After all, Shingle Mountain may have grown to a huge monstrosity, but it started out as a problem that the city ignored.