Why Earth Day Is Important for Blacks

Paying attention to environmental issues isn’t just something for Leonardo DiCaprio. African-Americans have a huge stake in the fight for a clean planet.

Posted: 04/21/2011 06:39 PM EDT
Filed Under Earth Day

Earth Day is today, and it’s one of the few holidays in which everyone on the planet is expected to participate. But with a problem as challenging as climate change facing us, Earth Day can often feel so huge as to be unapproachable. How can any one person be expected to wrap his or her brain around the enormity of the questions “How best to save the world? And should it even matter to me?”

The answer to the first question is difficult to obtain, because there are so many theories about it. But the second question’s answer is simple: Yes, it should matter to you, especially if you’re African-American.

It’s no secret that the most famous and trendy of the current “green movements”—electric vehicles, organic food, etc.—have little to no penetration into urban Black environments. And that’s largely because, unfortunately, those kinds of things are frequently the trappings of the wealthy. Electric vehicles are undoubtedly great for the environment, but they’re also very expensive right now, and not something many Black families can afford.

That being said, it’s important for Black families to keep an eye on the environmentalist movement, because, for too long, the worst environmental criminals did so to the detriment of hundreds of thousands of Black families.

One of the first looks into what’s called “environmental justice issues” came in 1987, when the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice discovered that 60 percent of the nation’s largest hazardous waste landfills were located in Black or Latino neighborhoods. Later reports, one from 1990 and one from 1993, discovered that African-Americans were three times likelier to live in areas with the highest concentrations of hazardous waste facilities, and that 60 percent of Blacks and Latinos lived in communities where toxic waste sites were located.

For decades now, environmental activists have called it the NIMBY problem—“not in my backyard”—which leads to the PIBBY problem—“put in Black backyards.” The simple fact was that nobody wanted these poisonous sites in their neighborhoods, and so the most politically powerful people (read: white people) were able to funnel the worst environmental disasters into minority neighborhoods.

Nowadays, the health effects of being stuck next to waste sites are still prevalent in the Black community. Asthma, for instance, kills Black children at seven times the rate it kills white children.

Our children’s lives are at stake because of the poor environment around them. Hopefully, that fact will be enough reason to take Earth Day seriously.

(Photo: MCT/Landov)