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Racism and Classism Are Alive and Deadly: US Public Policies Create Environmental Injustice

Racism and classism still permeate the environmental movement and US agricultural policy, fomenting environmental injustice and often defeating the ultimate purposes of the environmental movement, as well as purported agricultural policy goals.

Black farmers protest at Lafayette Park across from the White House in Washington, D.C. on September 22, 1997. Protesters alleged the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) denied black farmers equal access to farm loans and assistance based on their race. North Carolina farmer Timothy Pigford and 400 other black farmers filed the Pigford v. Glickman (Pigford I) class-action lawsuit against USDA in 1997. The USDA settled Pigford I in 1999. (Photo: Anson Eaglin / USDA)

Black farmers protest at Lafayette Park across from the White House in Washington, D.C. on September 22, 1997. Protesters alleged the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) denied black farmers equal access to farm loans and assistance based on their race. North Carolina farmer Timothy Pigford and 400 other black farmers filed the Pigford v. Glickman (Pigford I) class-action lawsuit against USDA in 1997. The USDA settled Pigford I in 1999.Black farmers protest at Lafayette Park across from the White House in Washington, D.C. on September 22, 1997. Protesters alleged the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) denied black farmers equal access to farm loans and assistance based on their race. North Carolina farmer Timothy Pigford and 400 other black farmers filed the Pigford v. Glickman (Pigford I) class-action lawsuit against USDA in 1997. The USDA settled Pigford I in 1999. (Photo: Anson Eaglin / USDA)

Despite claims that we live in a post-racial era, racism and classism continue to permeate US society, including in the governmental and advocacy organizations that are supposed to prevent discrimination and abuse. Racism is well documented in the criminal (in)justice system, and since the Occupy movement arose, inequality in incomes and wealth are more frequently discussed. But little attention has been given to racism and classism in the environmental movement and in agricultural policy, where their effects create intolerable injustices.

The plight of black farmers came to the forefront recently when The New York Times published a controversial report regarding the Pigford I and II court settlements which attempted to compensate black farmers for past discrimination against them by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The report and current practices of the USDA are still being protested by black farmers, who continue to face mistreatment despite laws meant to prevent discrimination.

Big polluters locate their factories and waste dumps in poor neighborhoods and communities of color that do not have the resources to stop them while large environmental advocacy groups look the other way. Robert Bullard, the father of the environmental justice movement, described to Grist what is happening, saying: “Now it’s institutional racism. You don’t have a lot of individuals out there wearing sheets and hoods. Instead you see it as the policies get played out.”

We explored racism and classism within governmental and nongovernmental organizations and how they prevent voices from affected communities being heard on Clearing the FOG with Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) whistleblower Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, president of the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees Lawrence Lucas, president of the African-American Environmentalist Association Norris McDonald and environmental justice activist Rue.

The failure to include and respect the diversity of voices of those affected by unfair practices is allowing the poisoning and disappearance of whole communities. Just as diversity in biological systems brings resilience and strength, diversity in advocacy creates more just and equitable public policy and creates a better world for all of us.

Black Farmers Still Face Discrimination by USDA

Ongoing institutional racism and discrimination by the USDA are the primary reasons that the number of black farmers is declining. At the turn of the last century, there were over 200,000 black farmers cultivating 15 million acres of land. However, federal loan practices and other practices have made it impossible for many black farmers to purchase or maintain land. Reports show that compared to white farmers, black farmers wait twice as long for responses to their loan applications and are more likely to have their loans denied, the amount of the loan cut and their properties sent to foreclosure.

As a result of this racially discriminatory policy, by the 1990s, there were less than 20,000 black farmers working only 2.3 million acres of land. These facts started to receive more attention when one farmer, Timothy Pigford, filed a lawsuit in 1997 because he was denied a loan by the Farmers Home Administration. Thousands of black farmers stepped up to say that they had been treated similarly to Pigford and the case became a class-action lawsuit.

The lawsuit led to two settlements, Pigford I and Pigford II. The first was for the farmers who joined Pigford in his initial lawsuit, and the second was for farmers who had not been notified about the case. Pigford II was signed by the president in December 2010. But Lucas states that many black farmers today have still not been compensated as required by law. This has been documented in a study called “Obstruction of Justice” conducted by the National Black Farmers Association and the Environmental Working Group.

A third case, the Black Farmers Discrimination Litigation, was won in October 2011 because black farmers continued to be discriminated against: their complaints were not being investigated, the USDA did not take steps to correct civil rights violations and the “USDA’s failure to act deprived countless farmers of credits and payments under various federal programs which resulted in financial and real estate losses.”

Racism and discrimination against black farmers continues today. The right-wing group founded by Andrew Breitbart published a report implying that black farmers were committing fraud by applying for settlement dollars under Pigford to which they were not entitled. The New York Times conducted its own investigation which agreed with the Breitbart report.

But Lucas states that these reports “distorted the truth” and black farmer groups protested them. John Boyd of the National Black Farmers Association explains where some of the errors in the reports originated. For example, the US Census Bureau data grossly underestimate the number of black farmers. And the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund published a point-by-point response to The New York Times article called “Sharon LaFraniere [the Times reporter on the story] Got It Wrong.”

Racism is still a problem within the USDA. It affects the employees, especially whistleblowers who bring attention to problems, and the people they serve. Although the head of the USDA, Tom Vilsack, claims “we celebrate diversity instead of discriminate against it,” Lucas emphatically disagrees, responding that there is “systemic and planned and orchestrated discrimination by the federal government” which he calls a “plantation mentality.”

Lucas states that “Things are worse now under this administration when it comes to civil rights than in the past, and even under the Bush administration it was never this bad.” Title VI and Title VII laws are not being adhered to and increasing numbers of complaints are being filed. In fact, the only person who has been held accountable for racism is Shirley Sherrod because Breitbart’s group edited a video to make it appear that she made an anti-white comment. Sherrod was wrongly fired from the USDA and later received an apology from the president and Vilsack.

According to Lucas, organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Congressional Black Caucus, which have historically stood up for the rights of blacks, are silent on racism within the government and the situation affecting black farmers. In addition, Lucas says that people who try to bring up the issue of racism are “slapped down” and that this is not a “post-civil rights era for minorities” as racism continues.

Lucas calls for these organizations to step up and for there to be a dialogue about racism that has not yet occurred. He and black farmers are going to continue to confront these issues. A march to the White House this June is being organized by a coalition of independent black farmers.

Environmental Nonprofits “Wealthy and White”

Racism and classism are also pervasive within mainstream environmental organizations. Racism is manifested through employment practices, how people of color are treated within environmental groups and what causes are given priority. Even more concerning, efforts by mainstream environmental groups to protect wilderness have pushed polluters into minority communities where the residents have few resources to stop them and are abandoned by the larger environmental groups.

Mainstream environmental groups have a deserved reputation for being wealthy and white. A 2005 study of diversity from the Minority Environmental Leadership Development Initiative reported that out of 158 environmental institutions examined, 33 percent of mainstream groups and 22 percent of government groups had no people of color on staff. Another study that looked at member groups of the National Resources Council of America found that only 11 percent of employees and 9 percent of board members were people of color.

This lack of diversity is not due to a lack of quality minority applicants in environmental fields. University of Michigan Professor Dorceta Taylor interviewed students and found “Minority students are being trained in environmental disciplines, thereby creating a robust pool of talent.” Taylor also reported, “My research shows they express the same willingness as white students to work for environmental organizations, and at minimum salaries well within the range these groups are willing to pay.”

And the lack of diversity is not because minorities do not care about the environment. In fact, just the opposite is true. A recent poll found that 84 percent of Latinos support regulations to control air pollution and 86 percent support limits to pollutants that cause climate change. Other polls also found majorities of minorities in favor of environmental measures to address various ecological problems. And minority communities that are adversely affected by pollution, land use and lack of access to healthy food also care about broader environmental issues such as climate change.

Lack of diversity within environmental groups has been going on since the beginning and it continues today, as this recent Washington Post article describes. Norris McDonald was the first black environmentalist who, as a result of his experiences, founded the African-American Environmentalist Association in 1985. Norris states, “White groups weren’t hiring black professionals, and when they did, it was a hostile atmosphere. There were a handful of black professionals in the environmental groups then, and there are a handful now.”

The culture within mainstream environmental groups is so homogeneous that people of color often feel that they have to adopt that culture in order to be heard, as McDonald describes in his autobiography. And discrimination is inherent, as this report on diversity states: “People of color are often hired as support staff and placed into positions not marked for leadership potential. The few people of color who are a part of a professional staff often leave environmental organizations (and at times the movement altogether) because of unfortunate experiences. Many feel unwelcome and uncomfortable in institutions because of the homogeneous culture both within organizations and the movement.”

In general, people are most inspired when they are doing work that they care about. It is no surprise, then, that minorities who work in mainstream environmental groups lose interest over time if the agenda does not match what they are seeing as the greatest needs in their communities. Center for Health, Environment & Justice Executive Director Lois Gibbs writes that there is a bigger problem than simply diversifying an organization. She explains, “I know from experience that a diverse staff and board will not change much unless it is accompanied by a radical shift in mission, goals and resource allocations.”

And when it comes to the needs of minority communities, resources are the greatest obstacle. Gibbs quotes a report from the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy which found “environmental funders mainly support large, professionalized environmental organizations instead of the grass-roots, community-based groups that are most heavily affected by environmental harm. Organizations with annual budgets greater than $5 million make up only 2 percent of all environmental groups, yet they receive more than 50 percent of all grants and donations.”

And finally, mainstream organizations that work to protect wildlands and wildlife have had the unintended effect of pushing big polluters into areas where minority communities are overwhelmingly affected. This 1990 letter signed by one hundred organizations through the SouthWest Organizing project to the “Group of Ten” or “Big Green” environmental organizations (which include the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, the National Audubon Society, and the Environmental Defense Fund, among others) states: “Your organizations continue to support and promote policies which emphasize the clean-up and protection of the environment on the backs of working people in general and people of color in particular.” The letter lists specific examples of environmental injustice and states that large environmental groups receive funding from big polluters, a definite conflict of interest.

Georgetown law professor Sheryll Cashin makes the connection between environmental injustice and the failure to integrate communities. She states that racism is behind suburban sprawl as whites move to areas they consider to be safer and to have better schools. This has the effect of increasing the use of cars as transportation, which in itself has negative environmental consequences. It also has the effect of creating predominantly higher-income white communities which have more influence and thus receive more public dollars for infrastructure. Minority and less affluent communities subsidize the wealthy white communities to their own detriment.

There are environmental groups that are trying to create greater diversity. But without a discussion of the many ways that racism and classism infect our culture, and without a real shift in behavior and priorities, diversity alone is not an antidote.

Environmental Injustice: Killing Invisible Communities

Although environmental injustice has been going on since at least the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the environmental justice movement is relatively new. Bullard wrote the first book documenting the rise of the environmental justice movement, “Dumping in Dixie,” in the 1990s. He looked at the locations of landfills and incinerators in Houston for a legal case that his wife was litigating and found that: “100 percent of all the city-owned landfills in Houston were in black neighborhoods, though blacks made up only 25 percent of the population. Three out of four of the privately owned landfills were located in predominantly black neighborhoods, and six out of eight of the city-owned incinerators.”

Houston continues to be an area that is plagued with environmental injustice. It is the home of one of the most toxic areas in the United States, the community of Manchester. Dr. Coleman-Adebayo describes the primarily Latino neighborhood,: “Surrounding the Manchester community is the Valero refinery, a trash incinerator; Rhodia chemical, Goodyear Tire, and Texas Petro-Chemical Group plants; Lyondell Basell refinery and Westway liquid storage terminals (massive tanks). Adding insult to the already overburdened community is a car crushing facility, 17 railway crossings, and a major highway with industrial trucks inundating the community 24 hours a day 365 days a year as they go to and from the Houston Ship Channel.”

Rue, an environmental justice activist working with the Manchester community, adds that the two refineries sit at the end of the Keystone XL pipeline and will process most of the bitumen coming from the Alberta tar sands. There are currently seven different known carcinogens in the air in Manchester and other chemicals that are affecting the health of the community. Children are 56 percent more likely to develop leukemia if they live within two miles of the Houston Shipyard (which includes Manchester) than if they live ten miles away. What other toxins will be expelled when the tar sands are processed?

Despite the documented health effects and the increased focus on Manchester due to the Keystone XL pipeline, the broader Houston community and environmental groups are not taking any steps to stop this environmental injustice. However, the residents of Manchester are organizing. They recently sent a letter to the EPA asking the new head, Gina McCarthy, to enforce EPA laws. In fact, Rue states that their “research proves that these facilities cannot operate within EPA guidelines and they self-report, but the EPA has done nothing, not even fined them.”

Manchester is one of many communities throughout the United States that is suffering because corporations and the wealthy have more political power than they do. What is happening in minority communities seems to be invisible to mainstream society. Journalist and commentator Chris Hedges calls communities like Manchester “sacrifice zones.” He writes about others in his book with graphic artist Joe Sacco, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt. People are suffering and dying in these places because their homes are dumping grounds for the waste that fuels our consumer society.

There are thousands of frontline communities, like Manchester, that are fighting for the right to survive in their homes. But they are fighting against a system that is rigged against them. A report, “The American Environmental Justice Movement,” illustrates the problem:

In addition, environmental justice proponents contend that governmental policy is also bent toward the deliberate targeting of communities of color for toxic waste disposal and also the establishing of polluting industries in those communities. Further, policy and legislation not only permit but also endorse the official sanctioning of life-threatening poisons and pollutants being located in communities of color. Environmental justice advocates also contend that residents of victimized people groups are ostracized from access to political power and consequently have been excluded from service on decision-making boards and regulatory bodies, thereby subtly yet deliberately promoting environmental injustice and environmental racism.

Not only do frontline communities lack a voice, they also lack resources to fight laws that are too weak to protect them or that discriminate against them. For example, the oil and gas industry is exempt from many federal regulations, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Superfund law. And when it comes to discrimination, frontline groups have the burden of proving there was an intention to discriminate.

Conclusion: Strength in Diversity in the Environment and Advocacy

The environmental movement should know from its understanding of ecology that diversity is stronger than homogeneity. Diversity allows the environment, whether species of plants or animals, to survive stress and thrive with greater creativity. The same power of diversity would strengthen the environmental movement and government agencies. It would bring new perspectives and innovative approaches to environmental problems.

The environmental movement also knows the Gaia Principle, that the Earth is one system and that all aspects of the ecological system are connected. With this principle in mind, allowing toxicity and pollution in poor, black and Latino communities is an injury to the entire ecological system. If the voices of people in those communities were respected, the environmental movement would be pushing for solutions that protect all – for example, ending the extraction economy, not just stopping one pipeline; protecting wild forests with measures that do not result in pollution in urban areas; developing new land-use planning that does not involve sprawl and suburban spread that facilitates racial division.

To really solve the environmental crises that we face, we must also address economic injustice and inequity. As Bullard told Grist, “This whole question of environment, economics, and equity is a three-legged stool. If the third leg of that stool is dealt with as an afterthought, that stool won’t stand. The equity components have to be given equal weight. But racial and economic and social equity can be very painful topics: people get uncomfortable when questions of poor people and race are raised.”

And the time has come to have real conversations about racism and classism, how they permeate and affect our society. We cannot just pretend to be colorblind, as if race and class do not matter. When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” it did not mean that we should all become homogenous. No, our diversity remains – our black, brown, red and white skins remain, our historic ethnic heritage remains, and the experiences of different communities do not disappear. Racial, ethnic and economic fairness do not mean we cannot recognize the strength in our diversity. Rather, our diversity is something to celebrate.

As the ecological system is stronger in its diversity, we must also recognize that environmental advocacy – indeed, all social and economic justice advocacy – is strengthened by our human diversity. We should not be colorblind, but embrace and find strength and wisdom in our differences as part of the work to end racism and classism.

You can listen to Racism in Government/NGOs and Environmental Injustice with Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, Lawrence Lucas, Norris McDonald and Rue on Clearing the FOG.

Further Reading

Gang Green or Fresh Greens?

US Climate Bomb Is Ticking: What the Gas Industry Doesn’t Want You to Know

A Forest of Poisonous Trees: The US Criminal (In)Justice System

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