The Activist Who Keeps Exposing Environmental Racism in the U.S.

Dr. Beverly Wright, co-founder of the National Black Environmental Justice Network, has spent decades empowering communities that are vulnerable to toxic chemicals.
December 17, 2020, 2:00pm
​Image: Michelle Urra
Image: Michelle Urra
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Dr. Beverly Wright has a list in her head of the most environmentally racist places in America. Near the top of it is Wedgewood, a low-income Black community in Pensacola, Florida, surrounded by 13 landfills. 

For decades, its residents have consumed drinking water with levels of arsenic, ammonia, and other toxic chemicals higher than in nearby white communities, Wright said. They breathe in hydrogen sulfide, which can be harmful to the lungs and brain. And though wealthier areas of the region are protected from flooding, Wedgewood is nearly defenseless. When Hurricane Sally hit the region in October, residents’ homes were quickly flooded

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“Imagine you’re living there and these landfills are filled with water and the water spreads all over the community,” Wright said in a phone interview from her home in Louisiana. “So you’re dealing with these unbelievable toxins.” 

Wright is the co-founder of the National Black Environmental Justice Network, which relaunched this summer after a nearly 15-year hiatus. Since then, the Network has begun a process of bringing together Black-led community groups from all over the country. It advised the Joe Biden campaign on how to fight climate change while also addressing historic racism—and is applying those lessons to polluted communities like Wedgewood. This is a strategy that Wright and other leaders in the network have used for decades: win local victories with national implications.

“On one hand, it’s just a problem for one little community,” Wright said of the toxins consumed by Wedgewood’s Black residents. “But finding a solution for this little community can lead to finding a solution for communities all over the country.” That could mean tightened health regulations for hydrogen sulfide, laws that properly clean up the toxic mess, or stopping the proliferation of landfills in Black areas altogether.

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Wright has been trying to shrink these types of environmental disparities ever since she learned about the cluster of chemical plants and refineries in Louisiana known as “Cancer Alley” several decades ago. As a sociology professor at the University of New Orleans in the 1980s, she collaborated with fellow environmental justice pioneer Robert Bullard on seminal studies which showed that these and many other industrial facilities in the country are “found near minority and lower-income neighborhoods” according to their research. 

Wright’s lifelong effort to identify, understand, and combat environmental racism has led to her receiving nearly two-dozen high-profile honors, including the SAGE Activist Scholar Award in 2011, which was given for her academic research as well as her activism.   

During the 1990s, Wright worked with Greenpeace to help Black communities fight chemical plants in Louisiana, including a complex operated by Shell that for decades had polluted the neighborhood of Diamond with health-damaging toxins. Through those fights she became close friends with Greenpeace’s legendary toxics campaigner Damu Smith, and together they helped set up the National Black Environmental Justice Network in the early 2000s. 

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One of its early battles was in Dickson County, Tennessee, where the Network aided a Black homestead whose members had gotten cancer and other serious illnesses due to authorities building a landfill near their home and failing to warn them about the dangers. Wright and other environmental justice leaders also provided expert advice to the Environmental Protection Agency. But the Network began to unravel after Smith died of cancer in 2006. “We were depressed; that knocked the wind out of us,” Wright told VICE this summer

Wright kept going as head of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, which she’d founded earlier in her career. But by early 2020, with Trump running for re-election and COVID-19 hitting Black communities with a history of air pollution disproportionally hard, she and other Black environmental justice leaders decided it was time for the network to relaunch. 

“We’d noticed a decline in platforms for the voices of African-Americans on environmental issues,” she said. 

With Biden as president-elect, Wright said the network’s members now have “a listening ear that we haven’t had for quite some time.” They’ll be spending the coming weeks and months pushing for the Democratic leader to fill the EPA and other federal agencies with experts that have experience in front-line neighborhoods, while pressuring Biden to make good on his promise to direct 40 percent of any federal green stimulus to disadvantaged communities. 

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But Wright’s been doing this work long enough to manage her expectations. 

Despite all the progress made over the past four or so decades, Black people in the Bronx still have higher-than-average asthma rates due to toxic waste facilities, hazardous waste storage expansions are still being approved over the objections of Black activists in southwest Detroit, and Wedgewood’s Black residents still have unsafe air and water

“As much as things have changed,” Wright said, “a lot of it has remained the same.”