Why is Environmental Racism an Issue of Faith?

A reflection by Valerie Rawls
African-Americans developed what in modern terms might be regarded an environmental ethos long before the environmental justice movement, before the civil rights movement, and before they were emancipated and had citizenship rights conferred upon them.
– Mart A. Stewart, To Love the Wind and the Rain
Since 1987, the environmental justice movement has been trying to address inequalities that are the result of human settlement, industrial contamination, and unsustainable development. The United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice (CRJ) published a decisive report exposing the gross disregard for people of color as toxic waste landfills were sited in their communities throughout the nation. Toxic Waste and Race in the United States proved to be a critical foundation for the environmental justice movement that continues today.
Prior to 1987, environmental issues and racial justice issues were commonplace in public debate, but not addressed as an inter­related problem. It was not until Benjamin F. Chavis, Executive Director of the CRJ, provoked the nation’s consciousness by referring to toxic waste landfills sitting in people of color’s communities as “environmental racism.” Hazardous waste materials of all kinds were being dumped near homes, schools, and work places, affecting children, their parents and grandparents.
Historically, African-American clergy have been on the frontline of civil and human rights. Human rights arise simply by being a human being. Civil rights, on the other hand, arise only by virtue of a legal grant of that right, such as the rights imparted on American citizens by the U.S. Constitution. Racism, segregation, and discrimination have been the focus; the effects of environmental impacts where not taken into consideration.
To answer the question: How do race, religion, and environmental racism intersect currently and historically? GIPL launched the 2018 African-American Clergy Creation Care and Environmental Justice Pilot (AA CC EJ Pilot). Seven ecumenical Metro Atlanta Faith-based leaders and their congregations will take a critical look at creation care theology, the environmental movements, and the ongoing engagement of environmental racism in African-American communities locally, regionally, nationally, and globally.
The GIPL African-American Clergy Creation Care and Environmental Justice Pilot Project will empower the participating leadership and congregations to recognize and respond to Creation Care Theology and Environmental Justice. The intent of the pilot project is to provide quality, experiential learning as a collaborative effort among all project participants:
1) to reflect their relationship with God and creation, by increasing biblical ecological intelligence;
2) to conduct the Creation Wise audits to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; and
3) to develop a “Green Team” action plan that integrates creation care and environmental justice into the work of their ministry teams, committees and governing councils.
During this year-long pilot the participating faith-based leaders and congregants will be engaged in a series of workshops addressing: Active Hope through GIPL’s Four Directions Fund, How to create a Green Team, Social Determinants of Health, Zero Waste, and Recycling. Many of the AA CC EJ Pilot faith leaders, green team leaders, and members of the diverse congregations will be contributing to GIPL’s weekly blog for the remainder of the year, giving you a chance to follow the progress of each congregation and the Pilot.
Until recently, the ecological crisis has not been a major theme in the liberation movements in the African-American community. “Blacks don’t care about the environment” is a typical comment by white ecologist. Racial and economic justice has been at best only a marginal concern in the mainstream environmental movement.
Connecting racism with the degradation of the earth is a necessity for the African-American community.
– James H. Cones, Whose Earth Is It Anyway?
Valerie Rawls is GIPL’s Consultant for Community Strategies & Outreach. She is excited to support the mission of GIPL and help to create equitable, co-collaborating, and sustainable strategies for GIPL’s work to reach all communities. Valerie is the lead on the African-American Clergy Creation Care and Environmental Justice Pilot Project.