August 13, 2009
Environmental Racism? One Story in Alabama
On the website of well-known environmental justice scholar, Dr. Robert Bullard, is a 25 year old report that to its credit is proving to be a pretty enduring document. Too bad that may not be a good thing.
In 1984, the California Waste Management Board paid the Los Angeles consulting firm, Cerrell Associates, $500,000 to describe what types of communities wouldn’t resist the siting of Locally Undesirable Land Use (LULU) projects. Drawing on a broad range of industry and academic studies, the report explicitly identifies communities least likely to resist LULUs. Cerrell Associates found that typically these communities are:
– Southern, Midwestern communities
– Rural communities
– Open to promises of economic benefits
– Conservative, Republican, Free-Market
– Above Middle Age
– High school or less education
– Low income
– Not involved in social issues
– Old-time residents (20 years+)
– “Nature exploitive occupations” (farming, ranching, mining)
Fast forward to August 2009. NPR reports a story about a predominately black town in Alabama where the EPA has decided to dump millions of tons of toxic coal ash into its landfill. The characteristics promulgated in the Cerrell report and those of Perry County, Alabama are frighteningly similar. Southern – it’s in Alabama. Rural – it’s in the middle of Alabama. Promises of economic benefits – $3 million and 50 new jobs. Conservative – Need I say Alabama again? High school education – only 10% of the population has a bachelor’s degree. Low income – the median income is around $24,000 and a third of the folks live below the poverty line. Nature exploitive occupations – farms, farms, and more farms.
To many, Perry County is yet another poster child of environmental racism. But some in Perry County want the toxic waste and see it as economically necessary in an area with 20% unemployment. So is it racist to assume that the EPA chose Perry County because it is poor and black? Or is it racist to assume that the elected officials of Perry County don’t know how to govern in their best interests because they are poor and black? Sometimes racism is hard to call when it is complicated by complicity.
What do we call it when one party’s actions may be guided by racial insensitivity, but the other party knowingly accepts, and benefits to some degree, from those actions? Does the outcome, if positive, negate or at least mitigate the intent? Does it matter? Maybe, I’m not sure. Just as a tree falling in the woods needs someone to hear it, racism needs a victim to empower it. I don’t know how much control the good folks of Perry County had in the EPA decision. But I find their reaction, which is in their control, to be more than a victim curious and interesting.