United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice Essay

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The United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice (UCC-CRJ) helped verify the concerns and claims of the emerging environmental justice movement in the United States with its 1987 study Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States: A National Report on the Racial and Socioeconomic Characteristics of Communities with Hazardous Waste Sites. Though the environmental legislation enacted by the U.S. Congress since the 1970s, such as the Clean Air Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, had addressed pollution problems that affect communities of color, these communities remained marginal in mainline national environmental organizations. Meanwhile, grassroots groups had begun to organize in the early 1980s around local toxics issues. Many asserted that communities of color faced disproportionate health hazards due to unfair practices of siting facilities for the treatment, storage, and disposal of toxics. Toxic Wastes and Race was the first study to test this assertion on a national scale.

The UCC-CRJ is the civil and human rights wing of the United Church of Christ. It began providing resources and research for grassroots antitoxics groups in 1982, particularly to rural communities in Warren County, North Carolina, who believed that they had been targeted in the siting of PCB disposal facilities. The Warren County communities staged acts of civil disobedience to resist the siting of a new facility, and the UCC-CRJ intended its study to fuel further nonviolent protest.

The UCC-CRJ study sought to determine what demographic and economic variables correlated most strongly with the location of polluting facilities, especially uncontrolled hazardous waste sites, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) describes as those that have been abandoned or closed by their operators and that pose serious health threats.

The study tested a variety of variables, including race, income, and housing age, and found that percentage of minority population most accurately predicted the location of these facilities. (The study counted African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and Pacific Islanders as minorities.) In his preface to the report, UCC-CRJ Executive Director Benjamin Chavis called the disproportionate siting of these facilities “an insidious form of racism.”

The report recommended, among other actions, an executive order by the president of the United States that would require that federal actions be evaluated on the basis of their environmental impact on communities of color. In 1994, seven years after the release of the report, President Clinton issued Executive Order 12989, which essentially added an environmental justice dimension to the National Environmental Policy Act.

Discussions of environmental justice since Toxic Wastes and Race have built on the UCC-CRJ study but have also raised questions about the processes behind the geographic distribution of toxic facilities. While it is clear in many cases that companies and governments have deliberately located facilities in communities of color because it was politically easier to do so, in many cases whites have been able to move away from older industrial areas into exclusive communities, in part because of discriminatory real estate practices, leaving behind more polluted areas for people of color. Thus, a historical examination is necessary to develop a causal explanation for these geographic patterns. Also, debates continue about whether income is a more important factor in determining exposure to toxic facilities, though many insist that issues economic and racial justice cannot be separated.

Bibliography:

  1. Robert Bullard, Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality (Westview, 2000);
  2. Robert Gottlieb, Forcing the Spring: The Transformation of the American Environmental Movement (Island Press, 1993);
  3. Laura Pulido, “Rethinking Environmental Racism,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers (2000);
  4. United Church of Christ-Commission for Racial Justice, Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States: A National Report on the Racial and Socioeconomic Characteristics of Communities with Hazardous Waste Sites (UCC-CRJ, 1987).

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