The news from Jena, LA lately has started me thinking again about the inequality often hidden in environmental issues. Environmental justice has been a concern of activists for a long time, and it might even be coming to light soon at a national level (if Clinton’s environmental justice bill gets off the ground). But the reality is that environmental concerns have rarely been recognized as an equality issue, except insofar as they are seen as the sole territory of those rich enough to care about them.
And the truth is that, most of the time, it is only rich people who care about the environment. You have to have the leisure to stop worrying about your next paycheck before you can start worrying about polar bears. But the other side of that coin is that the primary victims of environmental degradation and pollution are rarely rich. They are low-income communities, and (bitter though it is to admit it) they are frequently African-American communities. This is the as yet mostly unspoken and unprotested reality of racial and social inequality in America: your health and your environment are much more likely to be endangered if you are not white.
But no one is protesting this. No one is rallying against this. It’s too insidious, too invisible, and not atrocious enough to attract notice. But the failure of those of all races who care about justice to speak out against issues that are not yet scandalous is exactly what leads to escalations like the Jena story. Where was the national media when those first students at Jena High School–the true heroes of this story, though I have yet to read their names anywhere–boldly sat under the “white tree”? Where were the protestors when nooses were hung from the tree in retribution? Was the shock value of that incident not enough to rally national attention? Why were so many voices silent until now, after the situation escalated into physical violence?
It will be a long time, perhaps forever, before the problems of environmental justice escalate into violence. Most people suffer–will continue to suffer–in silence. But someone ought to speak. We ought not to let such things happen in our communities, to our neighbors, to our co-citizens. Not in my backyard? No, no one wants pollution in their backyard, and those who are rich enough and vocal enough to prevent it, will. But there are other things I don’t want in my backyard. I don’t want racism in my backyard. I don’t want oppression and injustice in my backyard. I don’t want victims in my backyard. And it’s time we all ended our silence.