Black is the New Green: Seeing Color to Advance Environmental Justice
When I look at green spaces . . .
When I look at green spaces, I feel a sense of mourning. Especially, when I look upon my small yard in an urban city. I, and many others like me, have lost touch with the land. We don’t know how to till and work the land to bear its fruits or even to survive. We have lost hundreds of years of knowledge and connection to our mother earth. As an American descendant of enslaved people, our customs, cultures, language, and families were stolen from us and beaten out of us. Though my ancestors were forced to work the land, so that others could enjoy their labors, rarely could they reap the harvest from the land. Thus, I do not know how to grow things, enjoy the green space, or feel at ease in nature. Enslaved Black people were prohibited from learning to read or write—punished when they learned anyway, and their freed descendants have continued to be second-class citizens, marginalized and disenfranchised from American society. The marginalization of the Black Americans did not end with the abolition of slavery but continues to persist today and this story is woven into the land and creates an ugly environmental tapestry. The disparate use, knowledge, and enjoyment of our lands, air, and climate tell this story. We think of “going green,” when working towards environmental efforts but because of the disparate impact of environmental harms on Black and other communities of color, we can align these efforts with racial equity and racial justice movements.
With my team, I recently published a paper in journal called Academic Pediatrics that examines how structural racism shapes poverty. Due to structural racism, poverty is compounded in communities with sizeable numbers of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). Per the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), environmental justice is the “fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental law, regulations and policies.” Environmental racism shows up in these racially minoritized communities in a variety of ways. Park access and pollution exposure are only two aspects that these communities disproportionately must face as compared to white communities. Thus, environmental justice seeks to ensure that those traditionally harmed by environmental racism have the environment they deserve. Environmental justice has roots in the 1960s with the Civil Rights Movement and with the work of Dr. Robert Bullard , who is regarded as the father of the movement.
The presence, access, and quality of both national and urban parks in or nearby to racially minoritized communities are inequitable. The source of the inequities may have begun with state-sanctioned and mob-enforced segregation and is driven by the devaluation of racially minoritized groups. Historically, Black and Latinx communities have been excluded and met with policing and violence when attempting to gain access to these spaces. Over time, the threats of violence and disconnection likely pushed Black and Latinx individuals further away from these natural resources, which may contribute to park underuse today. In fact, cities that are largely Black or Latinx have lower quality parks and experience more inequities in park access. Park access is not the only way BIPOC communities have been harmed. There has been an intentional targeting of these communities of color as sites of pollution and environmental harm. However, parks have essential benefits for both physical and mental health and may work to mitigate racial and ethnic health disparities, including important illnesses, like COVID-19.
Pollution Exposure & Environmental Justice
In 1982, a rural town called Afton, North Carolina became pivotal in the environmental justice movement in the United States. The North Carolina state government decided to house a hazardous landfill and dump multiple tons of toxic soil in Warren County, where Afton is situated. The community residents had appealed to government leaders regarding concerns about drinking water contamination; however, those concerns were left unanswered. Alongside supporters, community residents staged multiple peaceful protests over the course of 6 weeks which ranged from preventing dump trucks from entering the town by lying on the roads to the landfill to marches. Afton had over 500 people arrested in conjunction with the protests, making history. Though the people of Afton were unsuccessful in their protests, they garnered national attention and it is thought to be one of the first major events in the environmental justice movement. However, despite the role of Afton residents and other environmental warriors, like Cesar Chavez, and many others, environmental racism continues to occur today, with modern events like the Flint Water Crisis and Standing Rock/Dakota Access Pipeline fight that brought national attention to ongoing environmental crises.
The Next Green Wave
Both historical and contemporary injustices have inspired some environmental activists, especially racial and ethnic minorities, to focus on environmental racism issues. While white advocates, like Greta Thunberg, have gained notoriety for their efforts, there are BIPOC youth and adult leaders that have centered on environmental equity issues and encouraged these same communities to engage with nature. However, their efforts, successes, and mere presences are less acknowledged and celebrated. These BIPOC advocates need to be uplifted, supported, and most of all – listened to.
Rue Mapp, the founder of Outdoor Afro, has sought to connect Black women and non-binary individuals with nature. Outdoor Afro offers a network of resources for Black people across the United States to engage in a number of outdoor activities from camping, fishing, and kayaking. Other activists like Isra Hirsi and Nadia Nazar work to mobilize youth and others to fight against climate change. Nazar recommends utilizing art to get people to engage with issues on climate change and other environmental issues. Nazar says, “[Art is] an easy way to get a message across, because people don’t like to listen to what others are saying. But if you look at a visual piece, hear music, or experience a piece of artwork, they contain symbols and messages that are universal to most people.” Much like our research group is working to do in health-based spaces.
Finally, specific and ongoing events act like acute and chronic insults to communities of color and effects have intergenerational reverberations. While Black and other people of color are disproportionately impacted by environmental insults and injustices, they are on the front lines working for change. They have turned a “green” movement into a Black one and will continue to push for progress.
We will know that we have arrived when we can look outside at green spaces and not just see what we have lost. We will know that we have arrived when we no longer have to lament the future for our descendants and their ability to love, use, and safely engage with the land and our environment, that will be a bright day – green or Black.
Nia Heard-Garris, MD, MSc is a pediatric physician-scientist and member of the core Mutual Reawakening Team. Dr. Heard-Garris is concerned about issues of structural racism, which includes environmental racism. Dr Heard-Garris seeks to bring attention and evidenced-based scholarship to the public spheres to inspire and support change.