Why Should the Environmental World Stand Up Against Systemic Racism?
By LRWP Board President Heather Fenyk
Out of respect for the recent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and the many who came before them, the LRWP is pausing our typical monthly content to give space for all of us to reckon, to listen, to learn, and to act.
The Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership stands in solidarity with those protesting police brutality and systemic racial injustices. Our work to address these societal wrongs is rooted in Social Equity and Environmental Justice.
Environmental injustice is term that describes how people of color and poor communities have borne disproportionate harm from pollution and environmental risks, and the discriminatory systems that have perpetuated those inequities.
Especially with respect to environmental and land use issues, the LRWP works to reform a racist system in which the status quo has always been unjust. At the core of our work is a belief that watershed scale land management and environmental planning, especially in Home Rule states like New Jersey, is an urgently needed antidote to environmental racism and environmental injustices.
There are countless links between environmental injustice, environmental harms, racism, and inequality.
Consider lead contamination of water in predominantly black and brown communities, such as Newark, NJ and Flint, MI. These crises are rooted systemic racism.
Consider research findings that, in the U.S., the best predictor of whether you live near a hazardous waste site is the color of your skin.
Consider how legacies of redlining – the government-sanctioned denial of home loans and insurance to communities of color – means that people of color are more likely than white people to live alongside power plants, oil refineries, and landfills.
And consider how environmental racism is fueling the Coronavirus pandemic with resultant health disparities in our communities of color.
George Floyd’s last words “I can’t breathe,” uttered under the knee of an officer of the peace, are as symbolic of our environmental injustices as they are of our history of racism in policing. “I can’t breathe” has been spoken by hundreds of thousands before George Floyd in the context of systemic racism that results in higher asthma rates in communities of color, and more recently, higher incidence of COVID-19 in communities of color.
The LRWP believes that community work to address these injustices requires that we relearn our shared history. We must ask ourselves: How has my choice of where and how I live contributed to these abiding injustices? What are my blind spots? What specific actions can I take to make this a more just world?
Going forward the LRWP will double down on efforts to understand how land use decision-making at the municipal level perpetuates environmental inequities at a broader scale. In the short term:
- We will continue to pressure NJDEP to act on their (2009) legislated mandate to rank every contaminated site in order of risk and urgency with respect to environmental health, particularly environmental health of communities of color and the most vulnerable. The “Remedial Priority System” was to serve as a corrective to market-driven remediation that prioritizes clean-up of the most economically desirable contaminated sites. 11 years later however the agency still has not published this list
- We will continue our water quality monitoring and reporting at non-bathing public beach access sites along the Raritan River that are not monitored by NJDEP or local or County Departments of Health. We focus on these sites in part because they are disproportionately accessed by people of color. We need volunteers. Please volunteer!
- We will continue our research into the extent to which our local communities of color are more likely than white communities to be at risk of hazards related to climate change and new discriminatory lending practices called “bluelining.” (report coming June 2020).
- We will work to make resources available for our Lower Raritan Watershed community to analyze and understand environmental justice issues in their own neighborhoods. For starters please see our compilation of freely available on-line Environmental Justice, climate change, and health-related analytical tools.
- We will educate ourselves about historic and system racism, supporting those who are imagining a new path forward for our state and nation through structural change. Please consider joining us in following these important environmental justice advocates, environmentalists of color and other leaders on twitter and Instagram.
We invite you to join us on the path to an environmentally just Lower Raritan Watershed.
The Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership Board
Thank you for this. In NJ’s Raritan River Basin and every watershed worldwide, low-income and underserved communities of color continue to face undue amounts of environmental threats and damages, especially given climate change impacts. We each must increase our efforts to ensure safe infrastructure, pollution controls, and needed resource-protection regulations in order to guarantee enough clean water for all – for now and the future.