Government Doesn’t Understand True Environmental Justice, by John Meredith

Have you ever been the victim of environmental racism? You probably have and not even known it. And, more than likely, it was the government that discriminated against you.

If you ask someone from a liberal environmental group like Greenpeace or the Sierra Club to define environmental racism, they’ll say it is when a big business comes into a poor or minority area and takes advantage of the community because it has more political clout than the residents. An example might be that a garbage dump was intentionally placed in a majority-black neighborhood simply because the people who lived there couldn’t fight back.

There’s no disputing this is bad, and that it should be stopped. Environmental racism, however, is much broader than what environmentalists say.

Environmental activists, who promote expanding the power of government to right perceived environmental wrongs, always seems to look the other way when government commits acts of environmental racism through overregulation and high taxes.

When the Clinton Administration dramatically raised fuel taxes, it hurt the poor – many of whom are minorities – the most. Bill Gates and his wife pay the same taxes on gas and heating oil as a couple in South Central Los Angeles, but the Gates family loses a significantly lower percentage of their income to pay that tax than the residents of South Central. While paying the tax is virtually nothing to Gates, it may force the South Central couple to choose between hot water and a stove or driving.

Arbitrary taxes like the Clinton fuel tax discriminate because they take more from those who have less.

Has the Clinton Administration, in the name of environmental justice, moved to abolish the fuel tax? Of course not. And to save us from the yet-to-be-proven idea that the earth is getting hotter, they are proposing even tougher standards and taxes on fuels.

Is this justice? No, it is the new millennium’s preferred brand of institutional racism – and it is being perpetrated in the name of “saving” the environment.

Overregulation is hurting those it is supposed to help. To fight alleged environmental racism, the federal government has pledged to stop big business from picking on minorities. Often, it comes at the expense of well-paying jobs in minority communities – jobs people need to pull themselves and their families out of the cycle of poverty.

In Convent, Louisiana, residents of this majority-black community welcomed the construction of a $700 million plastics factory. They looked forward to Shintech, Inc. bringing them good jobs with health benefits and creating a stronger tax base for their community. However, environmental groups from outside the area – backed by the Environmental Protection Agency – challenged construction of the factory because they thought it was a violation of the community’s “right” to environmental justice. They claimed people in the area were already prone to cancer that might increase with the new factory, and that Shintech, Inc. was taking advantage of the people of Convent. Rather than fight, Shintech, Inc. built elsewhere – in the white community of Addis, Lousiana.

If the government regulators were concerned about civil rights, they should have consulted the NAACP. The local NAACP supported building the factory. As for the residents of Convent, 73% of them welcomed Shintech, Inc. to their community. But their voices fell on deaf ears in Washington.

Environmentalists won the day, leaving Convent the loser. The predominantly black community, with its long history of poverty and unemployment, lost the potential for 2,000 construction jobs and 165 new permanent positions that the factory would create. Jobs that would pay $12 an hour, double the community average of $6 an hour in the sugar cane fields. The high cancer rate cited by the environmentalists turned out to be false, like the majority of environmentalists’ claims. In fact, the high cancer mortality rate was due to not enough cases being caught soon enough – a situation that would have improved had Shintech, Inc. been allowed to build in Convent.

True environmental inequity is a problem. However, racism by any name and using any guise is an affront to us all. We need to remind the government that real environmental justice would stop people from abusing our community by raising the false specter of racism.

(John Meredith is a member of the African-American leadership network Project 21 and is a board member of two community-based non-profit organizations, a consultant for an educational organization and the national co-chairman of minority outreach for an independent election monitoring organization. He can be reached at [email protected].)

Note: New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those of Project 21.

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