In December, news outlets ranging from theNew York TimestoMother Jones magazinewere touting the leadership of California at the UN climate summit in Paris. TheLA Timesportrayed Governor Jerry Brown’s active presence in Paris as representing not only the crafting of his “political legacy” but also his preoccupation with preventing “catastrophe.” Yet, environmental lawyers, community activists, and faith leaders are increasingly bringing to the public’s awareness what has long been California’s dirty secret. In a state known for its environmentalism, environmental racism has remained a festering, unbridled sin.
Last summer,a lawsuit was filedagainst Brown and California Oil and Gas Supervisor Steve Bohlen shortly after California instituted regulations for the practice of fracking, the injection of a chemical-water mixture underground to extract oil. The lawsuit asserted that the regulations discriminated against students of color who disproportionately attended schools close to permitted oil wells. More recently, another lawsuit has been filed against the city of Los Angeles for its approval of oil drilling in neighborhoods populated by people of color. Earlier this week theLA Timesreported, “Working-class, minority neighborhoods in Wilmington and South Los Angeles have been plagued for years by foul odors, noise and dirt from oil operations that are practically in their backyards.”
Another battle front against environmental racism is also in Oakland, California. In the low-income, predominantly black and Latino community of West Oakland, a proposed coal terminal is being challenged by local advocates. In a statement entitled “Black Lungs Matter,” the Alameda Interfaith Climate Action Network detailed research that demonstrated how the residents of West Oakland already live in a community that suffers from high levels of pollution. Those living in the neighborhood experience “five times more toxic pollution per person than residents of the city of Oakland,” while “children in West Oakland are seven times more likely to be hospitalized for asthma than the average child in the state ofCalifornia.”
With the Democratic presidential candidates taking aim at the lead poisoning in Flint and with the ongoing revelations about Republican Governor Rick Synder’s role in the disaster, one might form the impression that environmental racism has a partisan divide, but those involved in the protests in California know a different story. The Rev. Laurie Manning of Skyline Community Church UCC in Oakland has been active in struggles against both fracking and the proposed coal terminal. In November, she joined an interfaith coalition to delivera letter to Brownthat called for a halt to fracking.On Tuesdayof last week, Manning addressed a rally outside Oakland’s City Hall in seeking to delay consultant work that could bring the city closer to having a coal terminal. In her remarks, Manning spoke of the pride she felt about Governor Brown’s environmental leadership in Paris, but then asked, “Why would we want to be complicit in prolonging and accelerating this environmental and humanitarian health crisis?”
The hope is that this complicity will end as the state’s dirty secret continues to be exposed and growing pressure forces elected officials to act in the public’s interest rather than the interests of the fossil fuel industry. For faith leaders, the prophetic role in this moment is to be truth-tellers, and the implicit lesson to be learned is that this prophetic vocation cannot be compromised by partisan loyalties or misguided assumptions. The hypocrisy of white politicians claiming the mantel of environmental leadership while allowing environmental destruction to happen in communities of color needs to be brought to light. It is time for environmental racism to meet a movement that declares Black Lungs Matters.
The Rev. Dr. Brooks Berndtserves the national headquarters of the United Church of Christ as the Minister for Environmental Justice.