Lana Bentley, Guest Contributor
Black history is characterized not only by adversity, but resilience. This month provides us with a reminder of the contributions that Black peoples have made not only to their communities but to the culture at large. Every February, we are called to learn and speak of the names of so many who have been marginalized or erased from the history books. I am thankful for this time to reflect and hope you are as well. This year, however, I want to adopt a slightly different framework by considering “Black futures”.
Perhaps the biggest and most important issue facing young people and future generations is the environment. Starting in the late 1970s, Dr. Robert Bullard, the “Father of Environmental Justice”, started his work regarding “environmental racism” which is defined as:
“Racial discrimination in environmental policymaking, enforcement of regulations and laws, and targeting of communities of color for toxic waste disposal and siting of polluting industries,” (Reverend Benjamin Chavis)
Environmental justice was coined in the early 1980s when protests emerged in Warren County, North Carolina, after a predominantly African American community was designated for the construction of a toxic waste dump. Garnering national attention, the protests sparked a conversation about the practice of placing hazardous waste facilities in low-income, minority communities.
There are growing examples of environmental racism specific to Black communities including proximity to waste disposal areas, poor air quality, and a lack of access to safe drinking water. Related health concerns include (but are not limited to) asthma, poisoning, and cancer. Based on a book of the same name, the documentary, “There’s Something in the Water” examines Black and Indigenous communities in Nova Scotia that are now facing a health crisis related to the inappropriate disposal of hazardous waste in their water. This form of racism may not look or sound the same as other forms of aggression towards Black people, the impact is harmful and potentially life threatening.
With this in mind, we are now called to action around “environmental justice” which in broad strokes, means the fair treatment and involvement of all peoples regardless of their personal characteristics related to the development and implementation of environmental policies and laws.
This year, for Black History month, I want to challenge you to consider the relationship between environmental justice and Black communities. Without environmental justice we will not achieve racial justice and our support of Black communities must include a commitment to address environmental issues. As a starting point, you may find it helpful to spend a few minutes reading about Reverend Benjamin Chavis and Dr. Robert Bullard, two African American men whose advocacy will go down in the history books as leading the charge on environmental justice. I hope you find their work and others like them as motivating and inspiring as I do.
Wishing you a safe and forward-looking Black History-Black Futures Month.