Environment

A Legendary Black Environmental Group Is Back and Advising Joe Biden

Inside the racist nightmare that led to the founding of the National Black Environmental Justice Network, the devastating death of its first leader Damu Smith, and the political shifts that brought the network back and made it more relevant than ever.
July 30, 2020, 10:00am
Damu Smith
Damu Smith, the network's first executive director, has been called the Martin Luther King of the environmental justice movement. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
Tipping Point covers environmental justice stories about and, where possible, written by people in the communities experiencing the stark reality of our changing planet.

Throughout the summer, Joe Biden has gotten advice on racism from an environmental organization that few people have ever heard of. Despite only relaunching in June after being inactive for over a dozen years and having less than 1,500 followers on Twitter and Facebook combined, the National Black Environmental Justice Network has done several meetings with the former vice president and his campaign.

In those meetings, the network’s leaders urged Biden to make undoing government-led discrimination towards Black people a key part of his climate platform. That could mean ensuring no federal green stimulus package is passed without carefully considering the impact on people already breathing in a heavier share of pollution from the fossil fuel industry—or creating opportunities for Black people to own, not just work at, the green companies that will lessen our dependence on oil, coal, and gas.

“We’ve been working with the Biden campaign,” said network co-chair Dr. Beverly Wright. “They have heard us.” In mid-July, Biden announced a $2 trillion plan for fighting the climate emergency that proposes 40 percent of all clean energy and infrastructure spending goes to disadvantaged communities, many of them Black. “We are in the process of sharing this with our members and asking them to send input,” Wright said of the announcement.

The network’s leaders and members are able to get Biden’s attention because they created the concept of “environmental racism” and were some of the earliest people to start fighting it.

They founded the network in the late 1990s because Black people were being poisoned and killed across the U.S. by industrial facilities built far from where most white people live. But with Black people now confronting police brutality in the streets, dying disproportionately from COVID-19, and facing climate disasters that cause them greater and longer-lasting harm than other Americans, if anything, the emergency that led Wright and others to fight back a generation ago is even greater today. Some outside observers argue there’s never been a better time to relearn the network’s hard-fought wisdom.

“We are in a moment when the National Black Environmental Justice Network is desperately needed,” said Tamara Toles, North America director for the climate group 350.org.

If Biden wins the election in November and takes seriously the network’s demand for solutions that can address today’s spectrum of crises, “then oh my god, there’s so many possibilities for change,” Wright said. Her experience has taught her to be cautious in her optimism, though. “I am so hopeful,” she continued. “But we’ve been hopeful before.”

As a researcher in the 1980s, Wright’s pathway into environmental activism started with her learning about the racial disparities of “Cancer Alley,” a cluster of more than a hundred petrochemical plants, six refineries, and many other polluting facilities stretching from her hometown of New Orleans to Baton Rouge. Most of the inhabitants of this polluted corridor are either Black people or people of color.

“They’d have little white crosses on their lawn showing the number of people who’d died in their families. Sometimes there was two, sometimes there was eight,” Wright said. “All the birds had disappeared except for the crows. Screens on their windows were rusting and falling off in like three months. The air was so corrosive that the paint on their cars was being melted off.”

Wright looked deeper and saw it was no accident that people of color were suffering most. “Much of the industry, which is the source of an area’s pollution problem, is found near minority and lower-income neighborhoods,” she wrote in a 1984 paper co-authored with Dr. Robert Bullard, another towering figure in the environmental justice community who is co-chair of the National Black Environmental Justice Network.

Three years later, an investigation by the United Church of Christ revealed this to be a national pattern. “Although socio-economic status appeared to play an important role in the location of commercial hazardous waste facilities, race still proved to be more significant,” it concluded in the seminal report “Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States.”

The same zoning decisions that excluded Black people from more desirable white neighborhoods were also exposing them to life-shortening chemicals and pollution.

Black people were more worried about the quality of their environment than white people, a trend that still persists today.

Yet even with these horrifying revelations there was a perception that Black people didn’t care about environmental issues as much as white people. “I heard that assertion a lot, but I didn’t see any data really to prove it,” Paul Mohai, a professor of environmental justice at the University of Michigan, told VICE News. He pored through large national data sets in the late 1980s and found that by several measures—including the desire for more government money to be spent cleaning up air and water—Black people were more worried about the quality of their environment than white people, a trend that still persists today. “That was an eye-opener,” he said.

Instead of joining national green organizations like the Sierra Club, Wright said, Black people were more likely to work with local civil rights groups that connected pollution to a legacy of racism. In 1991, hundreds of Black, Latino, Indigenous, and Asian activists from across the U.S. who also shared this wider perspective met in Washington, D.C., for the first ever People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit. “Delegates were shaken by the reports of widespread poisoning, oppression, and devastation that communities of color are experiencing—including water, air, and land contamination, which cause cancers, leukemia, birth defects, and miscarriages,” reads a dispatch from the event.

The summit set off changes that helped introduce “key buzzwords like ‘environmental justice’ and ‘environmental racism’ into the legal, political, economic, and social institutions in the United States,” according to the Southwest Research and Information Center. And the 17 “principles of environmental justice” that delegates adopted are now the moral and political foundation for thousands of grassroots organizations around the world, including the Climate Justice Alliance and the Environmental Justice Leadership Forum; more recently, they helped guide Elizabeth Warren’s plans for fighting climate change.

One of the summit’s lead organizers was an activist named Damu Smith, whose strategy for achieving racial justice can today be heard in the Green New Deal legislation proposed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Though Smith died from cancer in 2006 and is now barely known to a new generation of climate activists, people such as Mustafa Santiago Ali with the National Wildlife Federation see Smith as a civil rights organizer comparable to Martin Luther King or Cesar Chavez. “You’ll one day find him in textbooks and people will be studying his techniques,” said Santiago Ali, who is on the National Black Environmental Justice Network’s steering committee.

“No community should be poisoned, no community should be disproportionally exposed, no community should be subject to things that make us die.”

Born in St. Louis in 1951, Smith was raised by working-class parents—his dad was a fireman and his mom was a nurse—in a public housing complex. “Much of what I am today has been shaped by the fact that I grew up in not wretchedly poor surroundings but we struggled,” he would later recall. “I know what it is to go to school without heat at home and study by candlelight and not have enough money to get adequate clothes.”

Later, as a high school student, he made two visits to Cairo, Illinois, to attend Black Solidarity Day rallies. While there he listened to speeches from people including Amiri Baraka, Nina Simone, and Jesse Jackson and visited an area where white supremacists had fired guns at Black people’s homes. “The visits to Cairo totally transformed my life,” Smith later said in an interview with Contemporary Black Biography. “I made my decision on the bus leaving there that I would commit my life to the movement of social justice and Black rights.”

In 1973, Smith moved to Washington D.C., and for the next three decades worked on a huge range of activist campaigns, opposing police brutality, nuclear war, gun violence, South African apartheid, and U.S. imperialism. Smith believed the root cause of these problems was a system where one group of people attempted to dominate another. And this was especially true for pollution.

“While everybody on the planet is suffering from toxic contamination, there are some communities that have been targeted…based on race and income,” he once explained. Smith argued the best way to oppose “environmental racism” was to build a protest movement capable of pressuring politicians that united Americans across age, race, gender, and regional lines—this was one reason for him helping organize the People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit.

“No community should be poisoned, no community should be disproportionally exposed, no community should be subject to things that make us die,” he said.

People who knew Smith said he had a talent for turning the specific grievance of a community into a universal call for justice—and he could do it in a way that disarmed people’s defences and made them eager to show up for the fight. “There’s a lot of dogmatism in movements, a lot of finger-wagging, a lot of angry voices, but with Damu, he met you where you were,” said John Passacantando, the executive director of Greenpeace USA from 2000 to 2008. “You could see his brain going, ‘How am I going to bring these issues into your reality?’”

Santiago Ali first met Smith at the 1991 Environmental Leadership summit. Then early in his career, Santiago Ali was impressed with a speech Smith had given and approached him in the hallway. “Damu took the time to sit down with me, learn about where I was from, and he started to drop knowledge,” Santiago Ali said. This was Smith’s approach no matter how much or little social status you had. “He could navigate in any situation and hold folks accountable but also make them feel comfortable at the same time,” Santiago Ali recalled. “In my estimation, he’s one of the greatest organizers that this country has ever had.”

Smith worked with Greenpeace throughout the 1990s to assist Black communities fighting chemical pollution in and around Cancer Alley. This put him in close contact with Wright, who by then had founded and was leading the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice.

Among their top priorities was confronting Shell, which operated a huge chemical complex bordering the Black neighbourhood of Diamond in the town of Norco. In 1973, there was an unreported gas leak and when Leroy Jones started his lawnmower it ignited the gas, burning him and another resident alive. Another leak in 1998 caused a “cloudy-white mist” to fall on the community, making people sick. “Some residents reported a smell like burnt garlic; others felt the skin tighten on their faces,” reads an account of the incident by Steve Lerner, author of Diamond: A Struggle for Environmental Justice in Louisiana's Chemical Corridor.

Robert Bullard, Beverly Wright, and Damu Smith (middle row) protest against the Shintech chemical plant in St. James Parish in 1997. Photo courtesy of Beverly Wright

Wright’s group provided education and training to residents demanding Shell help them relocate by purchasing their homes. Diamond had existed before Shell set up its complex, and now that people’s houses were next to a refinery it was very difficult to sell them. “People are locked into these toxic prisons,” Smith had said.

The involvement of Greenpeace in the battle brought national media attention. “I knew we could embarrass (Shell) to death with the combination of race and toxics,” he explained. “I knew that if we exploited that reality that ultimately we could win.” Shell eventually offered to buy out up to 400 Diamond residents, but continued to release cancer-causing chemicals.

Meanwhile Wright was putting out the word for other Black communities seeking help to get in touch. “We started getting calls and the calls never stopped,” she said. “We were up to like 15 communities, all of them living in horrible conditions, and then we realized it wasn’t just in Louisiana, it was all over Texas, it was all over the South. Then we got calls from California. It seemed like an emergency to us.” In 1999, she and Smith helped set up a meeting in New Orleans for Black-led organizations fighting environmental racism. From that, the National Black Environmental Justice Network was formed.

One of the battles the network got involved with was in Dickson County, Tennessee, where members of a Black homestead were fighting the local government for putting a landfill just over 50 feet from where they lived, and then failing to warn them that it was leaking toxic chemicals into their drinking water—while cleaning up the water of nearby white families.

“We are all sick and the government seems to be waiting for us to die,” said homestead resident Sheila Holt-Orsted, who has experienced breast cancer, diabetes, arthritis, and gastrointestinal disorder. Bullard would later deem Dickson County “the ‘poster child’ for environmental racism.” In 2003, the Holt family filed a lawsuit against the city and county, which was settled in 2011 with 12 family members receiving $1.75 million. A separate lawsuit resulted in $7,500 each for nine other family members.

The network helped change federal policy, advising the Environmental Protection Agency on programs specifically addressing the needs of communities of color. “There was a big voice coming from the National Black Environmental Justice Network and many of its members,” recalled Santiago Ali, who worked at the EPA for 24 years. “They were helping to push for all those things that now people point to as foundational inside the government.”

But just as it was gaining influence and momentum, the network started to unravel. While on a peace mission to Palestine in March 2005, Smith collapsed and had a seizure. Shortly after, he was diagnosed with colon cancer. It was an especially rough year for Wright, because in August, Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, killing nearly 2,000 people and flooding her home with 8 feet of water while leaving an alligator in the backyard pool. “Damu called me and sent me an email talking about how sorry he was that this had happened and how much he wished that he could be more involved,” Wright said. But by then his health was in serious decline.

Wright’s own life was upside down: “After Katrina, trying to get back to the city was awful for Black people and we still haven’t fully recovered.” Seven years after the disaster, the average white household was earning income of $60,000, a 40 percent jump from before, while for Black households average income declined to $30,000.

Smith died in 2006 at the age of 54. “Even though he’s 10 years older than me, he looked young,” Passacantando said. “He was a fanatic about eating good food. When a guy like that gets sick it sort of flips your whole universe upside down. How could he possibly get sick? I think that’s one of the reasons people were so shocked. He was so into healthy eating, and then out of nowhere he gets this cancer and then disappears. It was horrifying.”

Wright felt a huge range of emotions. “I was angry with him because his father died of colon cancer, and Damu just didn’t go to the doctor. I was upset at him for not taking better care of himself.”

With the anger came grief. “I’m telling you, we were depressed; that knocked the wind out of us,” she said. Wright, like the network’s other leaders, was also running her own organization. Only Smith had been singularly focused on fundraising and growing the network’s influence. With him gone, Wright struggled to keep it going. “Eventually we just gave up,” she said.

Not long after, national environmental groups partnered with Democrats, fossil fuel companies, and some Republicans to get a cap-and-trade bill passed by Congress. The smaller Black-led groups Wright’s network had represented were mostly excluded from those discussions. And they saw little reason to celebrate when the House passed legislation imposing a limit on U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2009, because companies that exceeded the limit could pay a fine and then keep contaminating the air and water of non-white communities. (A 2016 study concluded that California’s state-level version of cap-and-trade “did nothing to alleviate the toxic pollution facing communities of color,” Time reported.)

But after cap-and-trade legislation died in the Senate in 2010, it created a political opening for a more confrontational, race-and-income-aware style of activism. Throughout the decade, Indigenous peoples led fights against the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines and groups representing communities disproportionately exposed to the climate emergency came together as the Climate Justice Alliance in 2013.

“I am so hopeful. But we’ve been hopeful before.”

The Green New Deal proposed by millennial congressperson Ocasio-Cortez in early 2019 channelled the demand for climate solutions that would address the specific vulnerabilities of Black, brown, Indigenous, and lower-income white people by proposing trillions of dollars of green investments in disadvantaged communities. The mass political movement that activists like Smith had once called for—uniting Americans across generational, racial, and wealth divides to address environmental disparities—appeared to be finally taking shape.

By early 2020, Wright, Bullard, and others were having talks about relaunching the National Black Environmental Justice Network. Those conversations took on unexpected urgency when the coronavirus arrived. Wright couldn’t understand why St. John Parish, a largely Black community outside of New Orleans, had one of the highest per capita death rates from COVID-19 in the country. But then researchers at Harvard University published a study in April finding that breathing air pollution can make you more susceptible to the virus.

It all clicked for her—St. John Parish is in the heart of Cancer Alley, right near where her and Smith fought a chemical plant decades earlier. “The Harvard study comes out and I’m like, ‘OK, now I understand,’” she said. “Black people are dying because of where we live.”

When the network relaunched in June, it felt to Wright like the pollution battles of the 1990s and 2000s all over again—but in some ways worse. Today, race is still the biggest predictor of how exposed a community is to health-destroying emissions and chemicals. But Black people are also being hammered with heavy job losses due to the coronavirus—the unemployment rate for Black people between age 16 to 19 is nearly 35 percent, compared to 28.3 percent for white people of the same age. And Black communities remain dangerously exposed to torrential rains, river flooding, hurricanes, heat waves, and other forms of climate chaos.

“People of my age group are so angry,” Wright said. After dedicating her life to fighting racial disparities, she lamented, “Why are we in the same place? We’ve actually lost some of the progress.”

She thinks there is a once-in-a-generation chance to turn things around in November, however. Millions of Americans are taking a hard look at systemic injustice. The climate movement is finally putting people of color at its center. Biden has endorsed most of the fundamental principles of a Green New Deal, if not explicitly in name, promising to phase out industries that are poisoning Black people and replace them with millions of green jobs.

“This is our opportunity,” Wright said. “Everything hinges on this election.”

Follow Geoff Dembicki on Twitter.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly called the National Wildlife Federation the National Wildlife Foundation.

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