Why environmental groups are speaking out after Charlottesville

Virginia Palacios

This post was co-authored by Ana Lucía García Briones.

“White Supremacy is a sickening and destructive ideology, and we all must stand united against it,” wrote the president of Environmental Defense Fund, Fred Krupp, after the racist march and violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.

None of our supporters would argue with the sentiment, but some may ask why an environmental group is talking about bigotry at all.

Aside from a moral obligation to speak up, there are reasons directly related to our environmental mission that made this response necessary. As Fred said in his statement, “America cannot achieve a better future in an atmosphere of hate.”

In a country hobbled by racism, we must address civil rights to be able to make true environmental progress.

It’s simple: Bitterness and division hurt our ability to focus the nation on clean air, clean water and a healthy climate. People have difficulty prioritizing lowering smog or mercury when they’re worried about an angry mob with torches – or a person in the Oval Office who refuses to unequivocally denounce them.

Environmental progress is a civil rights issue

Because of white supremacy, people who were not considered “white” were until not-so-long ago forced to live in specific city neighborhoods that were often zoned for industrial purposes or placed within flood plains. It’s because of such systemic and institutionalized racism that people of color in the United States live with more pollution and environmental risk than other Americans do.

We’re more likely to have lead in the water we drink and more peeling paint in our homes. We disproportionally live near power plants spewing air pollution, and with higher risks of flooding in our neighborhoods.

Our families are more likely to live and go to school closer to toxic superfund sites, which means they’ll be more likely to suffer from developmental problems, health impacts, asthma and other health conditions. In short, lives and opportunities of many Americans of color are set back because they’re exposed to pollution created to power and enrich the lives of all Americans.

Looking forward: Justice will be part of our fight

Large national environmental groups haven’t always focused on these issues as much as we should have. Environmental justice groups and many local organizations have been courageously dedicated to this fight, but some of us at the national level have been slower to engage.

Today, we’re committed to creating a world in which people from all backgrounds and experiences feel connected to the environmental challenges we face, and are engaged in the process of creating and implementing durable, equitable solutions. But we also know we still have a ways to go.

Speaking up against bigotry and violence like what we saw in Charlottesville is an easy and inadequate, but necessary, part of that critical effort.

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