Environmental Racism, Yes, Environmental Diversity, Still No, 25 Years Later


Montgomery       Almost 25 years ago in 1990 in an effort led by Richard Moore, co-director of the Southwest Organizing Project based in Albuquerque, a letter on their stationery signed by a number of community leaders was addressed to the head of the National Wildlife Federation and the big ten environmental organizations and demanded that they diversify not simply to reflect the population, but to understand the ravages of environmental racism that weighed most heavily on communities of color and lesser income. There were a lot of articles about the problem. There were a lot of committees organized and a huge number of promises to do better.

Moving forward now that there is even a greater awareness of the life-or-death importance of environmental issues, and a much deeper understanding of environmental racism, what’s the story now? Well, it’s not pretty, and it seems not to have changed much in 25 years according to a just released report covered by the Los Angeles Times:


The report found that while people of color make up about 38% of the U.S. population, they represent 12% to 15.5% of the staffs of environmentally focused foundations, nonprofits and government agencies. None of the largest environmental organizations have a person of color as president, vice president or assistant/associate director, according to the study, which was conducted by University of Michigan professor Dorceta Taylor and commissioned by Green 2.0, a working group focused on addressing diversity challenges in the environmental movement. “The numbers don’t lie,” Taylor said. “Even more troubling, although most of the survey respondents expressed an interest in bridging this diversity gap, they admit their organizations are unlikely to take the necessary steps to do so.” Environmental organizations surveyed attributed the lack of staff diversity to a shortage of open positions and qualified applicants.


Geez, “a shortage of open positions and qualified applicants” sounds a lot like the responses we have heard now since the 1950’s every time there is a demand for diversity and change in representational hiring practices. Sadly, I don’t want to even think about how much of the 12 to 15% diversity reflects the fact that so many of these outfits are DC-based in a city more than 75% African-American able to fill the office staffs and lower positions easily.

And, is environmental racism still a huge issue? Damn straight! A Grist.org story lays it out well:


It’s true, you can’t 1,000 percent separate race and class, but new findings from the University of Minnesota found that race, more than income, determines who smog hurts the most. Writes ThinkProgress: When low-income white people were compared to high-income Hispanic people, the latter group experienced higher levels of nitrogen dioxide. Altogether, people of color in the U.S. breathe air with 38 percent more nitrogen dioxide in it than their white counterparts, particularly due to power plants and exhaust from vehicles. Unfair, especially because people of color produce less air pollution than white people (African-Americans, for example, emit 20 percent less CO2 than white Americans). So why is this happening? You know, other than racism? Writes Atlantic Cities: [T]hat’s still a subject for further investigation; [U-Minnesota Professor Julian] Marshall notes that one theory is that more non-whites tend to live in pollution-rich downtown areas and near freeways.


Looking for more proof? Then check out a devastating analysis of “the disproportionate effects of pollution on minorities living in Los Angeles” by Professor Edward Martin and Serena Do in the current issue of Social Policy.  The evidence is everywhere!

Big environmental organizations may be having trouble finding open slots or people that can fill them, but the facts are ubiquitous in our cities. Maybe they are finding it harder to talk to black and brown people compared to dolphins, polar bears, and trees, but they need to do so, and do it yesterday, because time has run out.