Throughout my seven decades of life, like most participants in the political process, I have at various points changed my thinking on key issues. I have always taken inspiration from the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” This has resulted in my willingness to read works taking positions with which I disagree and keeping an open mind.
There is one issue, however as to which I have maintained a firm and unwavering position. It is my commitment to combat systemic racism against African-Americans, which has existed since they first arrived in America as slaves in 1619.
The most widely discussed manifestations of systemic racism in America today are racist voter suppression and police brutality. Environmental racism, however, is the manifestation of systemic racism which has done the most serious and long-lasting damage to its victims.
And the existence of environmental racism is impossible for anybody to deny, perhaps even for New Jersey State Senator Mike Doherty, who gave a remarkably offensive and inappropriate speech on 9-11 denying the existence of systemic racism.
“Environmental racism” can best be defined as the disproportionate environmental harm to people of color resulting from governmental practices, including 1) the carrying out of governmental functions or 2) the permission of government given to private industry to carry out environmental practices that are deleterious to the health of the residents of abutting African-American neighborhoods. “Environmental justice” refers to policies that have as their objective the elimination of environmental racism.
The most prominent example of environmental racism in the course of governmental projects involves the siting of garbage disposal incinerator projects and municipal landfills near African -American neighborhoods, and conversely, the siting of parks and recreational areas near white neighborhoods. This is an all-too common practice in American cities.
The archetypal example of a governmental public servant environmental racist was Robert Moses, the autocrat who dominated New York City in the mid-20th Century. Full disclosure: I do have a personal animus towards Moses, resulting from his forcing my all-time favorite sports team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, to move from Brooklyn to Los Angeles as a result of his obstructing the Dodger plans to build a new stadium for themselves in Brooklyn.
But the more serious reason for my anathema to Moses was his construction of expressways like the Cross-Bronx Expressway, which cut through and destroyed African-American neighborhoods in the South Bronx. The health of the remaining African-American residents was adversely affected by the noise and deteriorated air quality resulting from the Expressway vehicular traffic.
Moses was the quintessential racist urban planner, and his indifference to the welfare of the citizens of color in the path of his expressway bulldozers was replicated by other urban planners throughout America. I always recommend to classes I teach on state and local government the Robert Caro biography of Moses, The Power Broker.
The environmental racism practiced by private businesses abutting African-American neighborhoods involves permission of government to both use toxic chemicals in the production process and release pollutants into the air and water. Environmental racism results in fossil-fueled power plants and refineries being disproportionately located in black neighborhoods, leading to poor air quality and in the present era putting African-Americans at higher risk for the Coronavirus.
This environmental harm to our citizens of color from toxics like lead results in damage to their genetic system, impairing not only their mental and intelligence functions but those of their offspring as well. This was conclusively documented by the renowned scientific journalist, Harriet Washington in her 2019 landmark book, A Terrible Thing to Waste: Environmental Racism and its Assault on the American Mind.
My service as United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region 2 Regional Administrator in the administration of George W. Bush heightened my sensitivity to environmental racism. Among my activities in this regard were 1) the reopening of the cleanup of a Superfund toxic waste dump abutting a community of color, a cleanup that had never been properly completed; and 2) the closure of a filthy urban coal-fired plant whose air pollution was causing asthma in children.
Given New Jersey’s large African-American population and its substantial proportion residing in urban areas, environmental justice will continue to be a leading issue in New Jersey.
There has never been a more anti-environmental presidential administration than that of Donald Trump. He came into office with the desire to abolish the EPA, and his racism made him totally adverse to any concept of environmental justice. Under Trump, EPA, with its massive deregulation, became a tool of the leading polluters of America. Trump’s status as a climate science denier makes him totally unfit to meet the challenges of the future resulting from climate change, including the massive fires presently on the West Coast, the major increase in flooding expected next summer on the East Coast, and the hurricanes in the South.
By contrast to Trump, Joe Biden has had a long and intense commitment to the environment. It was a surprise to nobody when he recently proposed his two-trillion-dollar climate change proposal, with its emphasis on infrastructure and clean energy.
In itself, the enactment of the climate change proposal is essential for New Jersey’s environmental future. The continuously rising sea level due to climate change threatens New Jersey’s shore towns with the most destructive floods in the state’s history. The Biden proposal plus effective international cooperation is the only hope for America averting destructive fire and floods from coast to coast.
And the two-fold environmental justice component of the proposal is of special benefit to the Garden State. First is the establishment of an environmental and climate office at the US Justice Department. Having worked with Justice Department attorneys on environmental justice matters, I can emphatically say that they are the best in the field.
Second, the initiative entitles disadvantaged communities to receive 40 percent of all clean energy and infrastructure benefits. It is virtually a certainty that many New Jersey communities will qualify.
The administration of Governor Phil Murphy has had a clear and unwavering commitment to environmental justice. With the election of Joe Biden this November and the enactment of his climate change proposal early next year, Phil Murphy will have a well-funded environmental justice federal partner.
Alan J. Steinberg served as regional administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as executive director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission.
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