This weekend, like many of you, I’ve been reflecting on the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. ACE likely wouldn’t exist or at least wouldn’t look the same if it weren’t for Dr. King and the other civil rights leaders who understood that environmental justice is inherently intertwined with civil rights. The birth of the Environmental Justice (EJ) movement was a direct response to environmental racism and was heavily influenced by the Civil Rights Movement. When Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, he was there to support sanitation workers who went on strike for better wages and safer working conditions after two workers were crushed to death by a truck with a faulty switch.¹ Dr. King and other supporters of the environmental justice movement understand that the fights for civil rights and a healthy environment are inextricably linked.
In 1987, Benjamin F. Chavis, Executive Director of the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice, caught national attention for his definition of environmental racism, which he described as: “racial discrimination in environmental policymaking, in the enforcement of regulations and laws, and the targeting of communities of color for toxic waste disposal and the siting of polluting industries.”² Although many of the laws that resulted in segregation have been overturned, the effects of the years of discriminatory practices persist today. A 2007 study concluded that “[r]ace continues to be an independent predictor of where hazardous wastes are located, and it is a stronger predictor than income, education and other socioeconomic indicators.”³
Dr. Robert Bullard, one of the founders of the environmental justice movement, explained that environmental racism includes “any policy, practice, or directive that differentially affects or disadvantages (whether intended or unintended) individuals, groups, or communities based on race or color. Environmental racism combines with public policies and industry practices to provide benefits for whites while shifting costs to people of color.”⁴ As Dr. Bullard noted, the present day decision-makers responsible for siting a compressor station, trash transfer station, or incinerator in a community may not have discriminatory intent, but the impacts of these facilities continue to be disproportionately borne by communities of color and low income people throughout the country and the Commonwealth.
It is not only hazardous waste sites and polluting industries that disproportionately burden environmental justice communities. A recent study by the Union of Concerned Scientists concluded that people of color in Massachusetts are exposed to emissions from on-road transportation that release particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter (PM2.5) at higher rates than white residents: for Asian American residents exposure is 36 percent higher; for African Americans it is 34 percent higher, and for Latinx residents it is 26 percent higher.⁵ The study also found that in areas where PM2.5 concentrations are more than 200 percent of the Massachusetts average, white residents make up just 56 percent of the population, although 75 percent of the state population is white.⁶ Research links PM2.5 exposure to increased illness and death, predominantly from heart and lung disease.
In addition to these burdens, communities with large populations of people of color are home to fewer of the benefits that can offset the harm caused by living in close proximity to pollution. For many of us, this is no surprise. For others, the public health and economic crises caused by COVID-19 and the brutal response of the police in our own state to the uprisings in support of Black Lives Matter have also laid bare the fact that Massachusetts is much more segregated and less progressive than some would like to believe. In the policy world, this was highlighted last week, when Governor Baker vetoed the Roadmap bill, which included baseline protections for EJ populations. He stated that he was concerned about the impact that the climate-related provisions of the bill would have on housing affordability and the economic recovery. You may not have heard that he also vetoed legislation that would have provided much needed relief to our community members who are struggling with housing insecurity and essential workers who are dependent on public transit to get to work. The veto of the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act and a provision in the transportation bond bill that would have created a low-income fare program on public transit, coupled with the Roadmap bill veto, are a stark reminder of the work that is left to be done to create an environmentally and racially just society in our state.
Despite this setback, I’m still hopeful. I’m grateful to the legislators who understand the gravity of the situation and look forward to the Roadmap bill and other critical legislation to protect our communities being refiled in the near future. I’m inspired by my coworkers and our allies, who continue the fight to create healthy and sustainable communities where everyone can thrive. I hope that today, as you reflect on Dr. King and his legacy, you remember that we cannot become a racially just society unless we eradicate environmental racism.
Dwaign TyndalExecutive Director
Sofia OwenStaff Attorney and Director, Environmental Justice Legal Services
1. Ted Conover, The strike that brought MLK to Memphis, SMITHSONIAN MAGAZINE (Jan. 2018).
2. See Mohai, Paul; Pellow, David; Roberts, J. Timmons, Environmental Justice, 34 ANNUAL REVIEW OF ENVIRONMENT AND RESOURCES, 405–430 (2009).
3. Robert D. Bullard, Ph.D.; Paul Mohai, Ph.D.; Robin Saha, Ph.D.; Beverly Wright, Ph.D., Toxic Wastes and Race at 20 1987-2007, xii (2007).
4. Robert D. Bullard, DUMPING IN DIXIE: RACE, CLASS, AND ENVIRONMENTAL QUALITY 98 (Westview Press 1994); emphasis added.
5. Maria Cecilia Pinto de Moura; David Reichmuth; Daniel Gatti, Inequitable Exposure to Air Pollution From Vehicles in Massachusetts, UNION OF CONCERNED SCIENTISTS 1-2 (2019).