Many of our readers may already be familiar with evidence suggesting that residents of poor communities and communities of color in the United States bear a disproportionate burden of toxic contamination, both through the generation and release of… Many of our readers may already be familiar with evidence suggesting that residents of poor communities and communities of color in the United States bear a disproportionate burden of toxic contamination, both through the generation and release of hazardous chemicals in their neighborhoods, and via the location of waste management facilities. This is an outcome that the landmark 1987 United Church of Christ (UCC) report on toxic waste and race claimed was not the result of mere coincidence (United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice, 1987). Indeed, empirical evidence of disproportionate economic impact from environmental mismanagement, as well as through the regulatory response to air pollution, was already considered a decade earlier by geographers and economists, albeit without the suggestion of discriminatory intent (e.g., Berry, et. al., 1977; and Harrison, 1975).
In 1995, I attended a conference on Economics and the Environment in Dakar, Senegal as a part of my Master’s in International Relations studies. One aspect of the conference that still rings very clearly for me was the discussions around environmental justice and toxic dumping that was, and still is, taking place in Africa. This was not the disposal of toxic refuge from Africa, but from the United States and its disposal in countries like Nigeria. During that same time frame, I attended a conference sponsored by the Racial Justice Commission of the United Church of Christ. The conference focused on Environmental Racism as it was being experienced by the primarily African American and poor residents of East St. Louis, IL. Chemical plants including Monsanto and Mallinckrodt surround East St. Louis. I can still remember residents talking about being awakened by alarms announcing an “accident.” They spoke of clouds of noxious fumes, and that many had experienced health problems. The following is an excerpt from an article written in April of 2002, referencing the ongoing concerns of environmental justice and racism related to East St. Louis.
“Fifteen years ago, on the eve of Earth Day 1987, the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice published a landmark report, Toxic Wastes and Race. For the first time in history, Toxic Waste and Race conclusively documented the disproportionate burden that African American, Latino, Native American, and Asian American communities bear as the "dumping grounds" for our nation's waste and pollution. Toxic Waste and Race led to the coining of the term "environmental racism" and helped to jump-start the environmental justice movement. One of the people of color communities cited in this report for having an unusually high number of toxic waste dumps was East St. Louis, Illinois. Yet, even though 15 years have now passed, we must speak the truth once again that for many communities like East St. Louis –the more things change, the more they remain the same.” Bernice Powell Jackson, Executive Minister, Justice and Witness Ministries, April 20, 2002
Just like W.E.B. DuBois, bell hooks, Bernice Powell, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and many others before, I too believe there are interconnections that we should always seek to identify. What is the interconnection between the dumping of toxic wastes and an unhealthy environment for these two populations in East St. Louis, Illinois and Nigeria, Africa? How does it relate to environmental justice and environmental racism? We are fortunate in an era of “Smart Growth” that Minnesota State Representative Keith Ellison is pioneering the critical discourse; reflection and action around environmental justice as it impacts populations of color, the poor, children and other marginalized people.
The following is an interview with Minnesota State Representative Keith Ellison (DFL-58B). Paulette Sankofa: How did you become interested in the issues of environmental