Larry Payne was a sixteen year old black boy who lived in Memphis, Tennessee. In March 28, 1968,
Payne was marching in the streets of Memphis in a protest led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in support of sanitation workers who were part of an ongoing strike, as they were asking for their environmental and economic rights. After clashes with the police broke, Payne was shot dead by a Memphis police officer. The Second National People of Color Summit cited this series of strikes by sanitation workers as an important milestone in the history of the Environmental justice movement. Around 1970, over ten years before the term “environmental racism” was first officially used, the United States Public Health Services acknowledged that lead poisoning was more common among Black and Hispanic children than among white children. A year later, 1971, the President’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) issued its annual report which acknowledged discrimination against the poor and how that impacts the quality of their environment. In 1979, Linda McKeever Bullard filed a lawsuit against Southwestern Waste Management, Inc. which was seeking to build a solid waste management facility in Northeast Huston siting that the decision to build this facility is racially discriminating, since the neighborhood targeted is a predominantly black neighborhood. These events as well as many others made the general public more aware of a pattern showing that poor communities and communities of color are targeted locations for building polluting industrial facilities and siting dumping toxic waste. More importantly, these events have made more and more people of color conscious of the injustices and discrimination committed against them. The Protests against a PCB landfill in Warren County, North Carolina in 1982 were one of the major milestones for the Environmental Justice movement, and it was then that Dr. Benjamin Chavis, civil rights activists and leader, coined the term “environmental racism.” In his book, Confronting Environmental Racism: Voices from the Grassroots, Dr. Robert Bullard, environmental justice researcher and activist, defines the term as: “Racial discrimination in environmental policy making. … enforcement of regulations and laws. …deliberate targeting of communities of color for toxic waste disposal and the siting of polluting industries… racial discrimination in the official sanctioning
of the life-threatening presence of poisons and pollutants in communities of color. And, it is racial discrimination in the history of excluding people of color from the mainstream environmental groups, decisionmaking [sec] boards, commissions and regulatory bodies.”
Nonetheless, coining a term is far from being the limit to which the environmental justice movement extended, the opposite is, in fact, true; the terminology was just the beginning. The movement continued to grow as more and more people joined and took interest in the issues it discussed. For one, the government increasingly started recognizing the existence of environmental racism as an issue, and therefore started to take some action by charting new laws and forming committees. For example, in 1990, William Reilly, Bush Environmental Protection Agency administrator, established the Environmental Equity Work Group. Later in October 1991, in Washington DC, over 1000 people participated in The First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit. Additionally in 1994, President Bill Clinton issued Executive Order 12989, “Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations.” In the following years, the environmental justice movement goes through many reforms, events, lawsuits, etc. On some aspects, one might even say that the situation for minority population has gotten better due to the awareness and popularized knowledge of these issues. However, realistically speaking, the judicial system in the United States has many loopholes. Additionally, many companies and industries can use their money and resources hire extremely intelligent lawyers and attorneys which gives them the upper hand against local, less powerful communities and non-profit organizations. For example, in 1998, the citizens of Chester, Pennsylvania filed a lawsuit against Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PDEA) for environmental racism. The citizens’ argument was that since 1987, the PDEA has given permits to five waste facilities to be built in Chester, which is a predominantly black part of the country, while only granting two permits for other places in the county. However, the Supreme Court dismissed the case because the intent to discriminate was not apparent.
The movement has certainly had its victories, and it is definitely putting an increasing pressure on legislators and policy makers, and continues to raise awareness among the general public. However, one can say that the journey towards environmental justice and equality has barely started, and there are still heaps of hardships that face minorities and people of color in the United States. Whether it is excessive police brutality, as in the case of Payne, or the marginalization and neglecting of these groups in favor of others, Environmental Justice Movement and the fight against environmental racism still has a long way to go before racism ceases to be perpetuated by environmental issues. The government might write laws and legislation but if those laws have no means to enforce them, they are meaningless. This is why this movement is still fighting.