This Juneteenth, Let’s Look At Race And The Environmental Movement
Gov. Phil Murphy signed a new law last year making Juneteenth an official state holiday, which is celebrated this year on June 18. It honors the day when on June 19, 1865, Union soldiers brought news of the Emancipation Proclamation to enslaved people in Galveston, Texas declaring all people held in slavery in the U.S. must be freed. The date gained national attention last summer after the police-involved death of George Floyd in Minnesota that sparked nationwide Black Lives Matter protests.
As the United States continues to examine its long history of racial injustice, powerful environmental organizations are coming to grips with our own history of racism and white supremacy. The founders of the modern-day environmental movement were white men who often demonstrated more concern for animals and trees than their fellow human beings of color. I am not proud to say this, but unfortunately, the national environmental movement in the United States is still dominated by white voices and often excludes people of color.
Civil rights leader and activist Benjamin Chavis, known as the “Godfather of the Environmental Justice Movement,” first coined and defined the term environmental racism in his 1983 work, “Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States.” Chavis described environmental racism as the deliberate targeting of communities of color for toxic waste facilities, the official sanctioning of the presence of life-threatening poisons and pollutants near communities of color and the history of excluding people of color from leadership of the environmental movement.
New Jersey League of Conservation Voters has done some soul searching, and we realize we also have a lot of work to do to fully address environmental racism. We have made a commitment to place environmental justice at the center of all the policies we support. As the political voice for the environment in New Jersey, we are in a unique position to have a real impact on helping to elect and mobilize environmental champions who support safe drinking water, clean air and open space for all New Jerseyans no matter their zip code.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, New Jersey has more Superfund sites (locations that receive federal funding for pollution cleanup) than any other state in the nation. Many of these Superfund sites are located in low-income communities of color. Historically polluting industries in the state have also been placed in these neighborhoods and — due to the lack of economic resources, political power and systematic racism — not much has been done to stop it.
The impact of environmental racism on communities of color in New Jersey is deadly. A major public health indicator in Latinx, African American, and low-income communities is asthma. According to the National Institutes of Health, the medical cost and lost job productivity directly resulting from asthma cost New Jersey $450 million annually. There’s also the diesel pollution associated with mobile emissions in urban areas that cause nearly 1,000 premature deaths and 1,300 non-fatal heart attacks annually. A study last year from Harvard University, showed that residents who live in counties with higher levels of air pollution are more likely to die from COVID-19. This is a big concern in New Jersey where poor air quality continues to plague our state and especially our cities.
Every year New Jersey League of Conservation Voters convenes environmental partners in the state to create a Common Agenda, items that we will fight for in the state legislature. Listed on that agenda is reducing pollution in environmental justice communities. We were extremely excited last year when Governor Murphy signed into law a bill to address the cumulative impacts of pollution in overburdened communities in New Jersey. It is the most progressive and consequential action regarding the cumulative impacts of pollution on low-income and communities of color in the nation.
We are grateful to New Jersey Senator Troy Singleton and Assemblyman John McKeon, and the New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance, Ironbound Community Corporation and Clean Water Action that after a decade-long effort was able to get this critical legislation across the finish line. Potentially major polluting projects are now subject to a full assessment of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and input from local residents who must live with the health and quality of life adverse effects before moving forward. However, this is just the beginning. We need to make sure the law is implemented in a way that has some real and meaningful impact.
Clean energy will not only improve our air and water quality but is one of the fastest-growing industries in America and provides a huge opportunity for high-quality union jobs that can help rebuild the middle class and provide new opportunities for business owners and workers in Black and brown communities. Governor Murphy recently established the New Jersey Council on the Green Economy that can help generate good local union jobs that cannot be outsourced. These jobs will provide a living wage to sustain our middle-class and help create a prosperous future for all New Jerseyans, especially those that have been left behind in our Black and brown communities and have borne the unjust burden of pollution in our state.
We know that the old paradigm of us telling communities of color what’s best for them simply does not work. In order to ensure that New Jersey’s clean energy transition prevents the worst impacts of climate change and improves health and economic outcomes in communities of color, New Jersey League of Conservation Voters recognizes that it is essential to listen and follow the lead of families who live in those communities, and the organizations and businesses that serve those communities.
We’ve recently held over 30 listening sessions to better understand what issues are important to people of color and how we can help. Coming together to talk, we mutually shared our understanding and hope that we have begun the journey of working together. It’s a critical ongoing journey, and I’m proud that the League is doing everything in its power to dismantle environmental racism.