The fall of the Confederate statues reminds us that no nation forever can be shackled to symbols that defy its values, subvert its purpose, and cause its people anguish and pain.
Removing these statues, though, also creates an opportunity, and focuses us on what we must do to build a just and equitable society.
Part of the answer must be to confront the ways systemic racism has put Black people on the front lines of environmental hazard and harm far too often, and for far too long.
Few things more directly impact the quality of our lives and health. Drinking safe water, breathing clean air and eating healthy food are basic human rights. And part of the promise of an equitable society is that each of us has the opportunity to live in a comfortable and affordable home near good schools, workplaces and centers of commerce.
And yet, if you’re Black in America, these fundamentals are far from assured. The latest indicator: Black people are more than twice as likely as their white counterparts to die from the coronavirus.
Black people are less likely to be able to work from home or to have access to quality health care. And we’re more likely to suffer the impacts of power plants, refineries, incinerators and other sources of air pollution linked to the kinds of heart and lung troubles that make it harder to survive the coronavirus.
Now, as millions of low-income families fear eviction — or the shut-off of electricity or water — due to lost income from the pandemic, no one is surprised to learn that Black people disproportionately are at risk. Furious, yes; sadly, not surprised.
No one is surprised, either, to learn that 70% of the country’s contaminated waste sites — or Superfund sites — are located near low-income housing, which, in most parts of the country, is heavily Black. Or that 68% of Black people live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant, exposing them to toxic air pollution. Or that the citizens of majority-Black Flint, Mich., were drinking water that contained lead, a toxic metal known for its harmful effects since before the birth of Christ.
When factories and toxic waste sites disproportionately are located where Black people live; when Black people drink water contaminated by concentrated animal feeding operations; and when Black people breathe fumes from nearby incinerators, that is environmental racism. Putting an end to it is part of our larger charge to ensure justice for all.
Virginia took an important step forward this past spring, when legislators made the Virginia Council on Environmental Justice a permanent body. The state’s pledge to end all fossil fuel generation of electricity by 2050 is important: Black people already are bearing more than their share of the damage and danger of climate change. And there was more progress recently, when Dominion Energy and Duke Energy abandoned the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which would have brought a dangerous compressor station to the predominantly Black community of Union Hill.
To build on this momentum, we must focus on three big baskets of progress.
First, Black people must have a meaningful voice in decisions about projects that impact our environment and health, to ensure that our views are heard when our welfare is pitted against industrial interests and corporate profits.
Second, we need to center justice in our fight against the central environmental challenge of our time: climate change. Black people, other people of color and low-income communities are bearing a disproportionate share of the costs and risks of rising seas, withering heat, raging storms and floods, and other consequences of climate change. We need help now to prepare our communities for more change to come.
Finally, we need to move beyond policies that merely seek to minimize additional harm to Black communities, and shift to strategies for equitably improving Black lives in meaningful and measurable ways.
We need to expand, for example, access to healthy, sustainable food for Black people, too many of whom live in urban food deserts where it’s easier to buy packaged snack foods than fresh produce.
As Virginia moves toward a clean energy future, we need to ensure that Black people fully share in the benefits.
That means improving access to capital so low-income families can invest in solar power, energy-efficient appliances and home weatherization. It means creating sustainable transit options that connect Black communities to economic and social opportunities. And it means job training to help provide Black workers an on-ramp to the low carbon economy of the future.
To paraphrase the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., environmental justice delayed is environmental justice denied. We’ve delayed this fight for far too long. Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work.