When you think of the environmental movement, what kind of people spring to mind? You might think of a tree hugging, Earth Day celebrating, “natural” food eating, white person in a pair of Birkenstocks. If so, that makes a lot of sense — the mainstream environmental movement – the one that’s enjoyed the most attention for the better part of 50 years — is primarily composed of white people who are likely to name Rachel Carson, Silent Spring author, as the creator of the Environmental Movement. Meanwhile, Black, Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) have been doing environmental justice work for generations, from Indegenous/First Nation people nurturing and protecting the land and water, to modern Black Americans fighting corporations from polluting their neighborhoods.
However, the more visible movement has not traditionally welcomed or included BIPOC. In fact, some of the earliest and most prominent voices of the mainstream movement, like John Muir, held openly racist views. Similarly, those credited with starting the modern organic food movement were proponents of eugenics and “racial purity” — all this, of course, while Black, Brown, and Indigenous populations had been farming using organic principles for centuries.
Systemic racism is pervasive in all of our major institutions, and the environmental movement is not immune to its stranglehold on society.
Environmentalists have excluded BIPOC from our mostly white organizations and institutions through conscious and unconscious biases as long as these organizations have existed — the Missouri Coalition for the Environment is no exception. The intentional and unintentional exclusion of these voices comes at a deadly cost — BIPOC are much more likely to suffer from the negative health impacts of living near polluting industries. According to last year’s Environmental Racism in St. Louis Report from Washington University in St. Louis, “Black residents in St. Louis are almost twice as likely to have limited access to healthy food as white residents,” resulting in long-term health issues. BIPOC are more likely to live in housing with poor indoor environmental air quality from mold, asbestos, and lead. BIPOC across the globe are more likely to be impacted “first and worst” by climate change.
The movement has suffered from its lack of diversity. The answers to the problems we are trying to solve can and should come from experts — those who are most impacted by environmental injustices, from exploited migrant laborers in factory farms to Black and Brown communities suffering from food aparthied to coastal communities suffering from climate change.
White-centered environmentalism is over.
We hope you’ll join us as we examine our role in systemic racism and begin to address and eliminate the health and environmental disparities that BIPOC face. We need BIPOC voices leading and representing the environmental movement if we truly wish to create a healthy, safe, and just environment for everyone.