That army was the environmental justice movement, and next week its members celebrate the 20th anniversary of President Bill Clinton signing their magnum opus: Executive Order 12898, which requires all federal agencies to consider impacts on people of color in their regulations and rulemaking. That resolution was the result of a groundswell of Native American, Latino, Asian American, and African American public health advocates and grassroots organizers around the country who were, as their often sung battle cry went, “sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
People of color were dying because government officials were allowing companies to dump waste and burn off toxic fumes in close proximity to segregated, poor, black and brown communities — sometimes within blocks. This industrial blight contributed heavily to what made these neighborhoods “slums,” meaning that they were too unhealthy to live in with any measure of dignity. But a new urban environmental movement, which had been bubbling since the 1970s, took on the mission of proving that the polluting factories and plants were zoned so close to communities of color not by coincidence, but as an act of racial discrimination.
It was a continuation of where Dr. Martin Luther King was headed before his death, working on behalf of low-wage, poorly protected garbage workers in Memphis — and the outgrowth of several decades of activism. In a string of policy victories, we had the Civil Rights Act (1964), the Voting Rights Act (1965) and the Fair Housing Act (1968); and then we had the National Environmental Protection Act (1969), establishment of EPA (1970) and the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts (1970, ‘72). But despite all those protections, young black teens and Latinos were still growing up in Illmatic conditions, daily living close to death….
As Mildred McClain explained during a panel last year, “It is because [of] our battle cry that President Clinton issued the executive order. … But [we were] in Virginia hashing it out before it even got signed, because we knew we had a job to do for the children, the elders, the vulnerable populations, and those who were sitting up in hospitals with asthma, and no health insurance to pay for the doctor.”
The year was 1994, and Nas was hashing it out in New York, singing, “Life’s a bitch and then you die,” because for too many African Americans and Puerto Ricans in the East, this was the reality, just as it was with Chicanos and Mexican farmworkers in the West, to say nothing of Native Americans all across the country. You lived next to an oil refinery, a landfill, an incinerator, a chemical facility, a farm overrun with pesticides — zoned and redlined to live and work in these places as policy — and then you died.
The environmental justice movement was filled with people who valued human life and knew that it didn’t have to be this way in their communities. This month marks 20 years since they made the federal government come to that same conclusion.”