Environmentalism’s Racist History

Even as environmentalism took on big new problems in the seventies, it also seemed to promise an escape hatch from continuing crises of inequality, social conflict, and, sometimes, certain kinds of people. Time described the environmental crisis as a problem that Americans “might actually solve, unlike the immensely more elusive problems of race prejudice or the war in Vietnam.” In his 1970 State of the Union address, in which he expended less than a hundred words on Vietnam, made no explicit reference to race, and yet launched a new racialized politics with calls for a “war” on crime and attacks on the welfare system, Richard Nixon spent almost a thousand words on the environment, which he called “a cause beyond party and beyond factions.” That meant, of course, that he thought it could be a cause for the white majority.

Environmentalism largely was that. When the Sierra Club polled its members, in 1972, on whether the club should “concern itself with the conservation problems of such special groups as the urban poor and ethnic minorities,” forty per cent of respondents were strongly opposed, and only fifteen per cent were supportive. (The phrasing of the question made the club’s bias clear enough.) Admitting to its race problem took the movement nearly two decades. In 1987, the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice published an influential report that found that hazardous waste facilities were disproportionately located in minority communities, and called this unequal vulnerability “a form of racism.” The environmental movement, the report observed, “has historically been white middle and upper-class.” Three years later, activists sent a letter to the heads of major environmental organizations, claiming that non-whites were less than two per cent of the combined seven hundred and forty-five employees of the Audubon Society, Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council (N.R.D.C.), and Friends of the Earth. Fred Krupp, then executive director of the Environmental Defense Fund, replied with a mea culpa: “Environmental groups have done a miserable job of reaching out to minorities.”

Read the full article at The New Yorker


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