Without environmental justice, racial justice remains a pipe dream.
Nearly 30 years ago, I was a White House intern when then-President Bill Clinton signed an environmental justice executive order that addressed the disproportionate impact environmental damage perpetrates on Black and poor communities. It included a strategy to implement environmental justice on a federal level. It was a good action. The problem is, it didn’t lead to substantive change.
Clean water is a basic human need, and access to it is a right every person should have. The federal government has even guaranteed this access since 1974. But like most things in America, there’s a stated ideal and then there’s an on-the-ground reality that doesn’t live up to it, which is generally the experience for Black, Brown, and Indigenous people.
Exhibit A is Jackson, Mississippi. The water may be running and drinkable again after a brief stoppage in late summer and a months-long boil water advisory, but the crisis there is far from over. The underlying conditions that allowed for a loss of water to 150,000 primarily Black residents will take at least $1 billion to even start to short term remedies, according to Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, through reporting from VOX.
Jackson is in this situation more than a year after residents first sounded the alarm around water safety there, and after generations of consistent disinvestment in infrastructure as well as white flight after schools integrated in the 1970s. In late September, the NAACP filed a complaint under Title 6 of the Civil Rights Act requesting that the Environmental Protection Agency investigate whether Mississippi discriminated against Black people in Jackson by failing to repair the city’s water system sooner. And Congress is investigating Mississippi’s planned use of the American Rescue Plan Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law federal aid funds in the wake of allegations that state officials planned to short-change Jackson.
Since the nation’s founding, systemic racism has trumped Black, Brown, and Indigenous lives. Short-sighted, racist priorities create vast disparities in services and infrastructure that ricochet across generations. Much of this suffering could be avoided if investments to build and maintain vital services were prioritized in all communities.
Speaking of water alone, Jackson joins a list of recent crises — including the Flint water crisis, the Standing Rock protests against pipeline construction likely to contaminate water running through Indigenous lands, the E. coli water crisis in Baltimore, and the lead crisis in Chicago — where damaged water systems impacted already-vulnerable communities.
These are economic injustice and environmental racism disasters, and with Jackson, once again the media is not covering it as such. A recent Media Matters analysis showed that 84 percent of major news coverage failed to explore the environmental justice lens. This lack of context can prevent viewers from understanding the connections between racial disparities and climate emergencies, making it harder to implement solutions.
The Jackson water crisis must be the line in the sand, the tipping point where we say: No more sidestepping the issue. Let’s call it what it is: Generations of environmental racism exacerbated by the climate crisis and decades of unfulfilled promises to our families and loved ones. It’s time for voters to demand that lawmakers prioritize a baseline of clean water, proper sanitation and clean air for all families no matter their ZIP code. This is a crucial, and urgent civil rights issue.
We need full racial and environmental justice that starts with the basics that we need to live, including water to drink and bathe with. These two issue spaces are one and the same, each impossible to achieve without the other — and we need it now. Damaged infrastructure in vulnerable areas must be fixed no matter what it costs to do so. We see it is possible in other communities, why not ours? Black, Brown, and Indigenous people in America deserve access to the basic things necessary to sustain life. It is no longer up for debate.
President Biden’s $44 billion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is the largest source of intergovernmental aid for water systems and is a pathway to address disparities in water infrastructure investment. But because low-income communities and communities of color are often less likely to access federal funds, the problems persist. As the Environmental Policy Innovation Center recommends, reforming state policies and practices to equitably incorporate disadvantaged communities is one way we can address these inequities. And while the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act dedicated unprecedented levels of resources to mitigating climate damage, it’s far from a perfect solution. We still need voters to show up to the polls, make their voices heard and hold leaders accountable to build the infrastructure that will ensure that basic human rights are met.
Almost 30 years later and despite a strong, ongoing movement, environmental justice is still a work in progress, and the decades left immeasurable harm and suffering in their wake. Choosing which human lives are expendable is the worst thing people do to one another.
Reflecting on the last 30 years, since I saw that glimmer of possibility for real change through the president’s executive action, I wonder if 30 years from now, today’s 20-somethings will possibly look back on equally sluggish progress. But we can’t afford another 30 years.
Now as I lead the Hip Hop Caucus, we are focusing on educating potential voters about their civic rights and responsibilities, through both live events aimed at voting-age Black folks and through digital organizing. Our Respect My Vote! website has resources that help users register to vote, check their voter registration status, set up election reminders, find their polling place, and request an absentee ballot. We also offer guidance on voting by mail in states that have adopted this safe and effective means of being counted.
Beyond voting literacy, Hip Hop Caucus is focused on supporting today’s young Black activists in their quest to prioritize environmental justice. We can increasingly see these activists banding together in large, diverse coalitions to push our elected officials toward law and policy changes. Recently, Sen. Joe Manchin was forced to strip energy permitting legislation that would make it easier to greenlight fossil fuel projects from a spending bill to avert a government shutdown, partly thanks to widespread movement protests against weakening protections.
Lawmakers and officials won’t make change unless we force them to do so. So we will continue to hold them accountable to the people they were elected to serve.
There is reason to believe that our goals are achievable. Current young activists, a more diverse group than any that came before, realize they can show up and speak out to create real change. This movement understands how issues intersect — that climate justice is racial justice, and racial justice means no one will have to question the water coming out of their tap in the United States. They understand, in the words of noted Mississippian Fannie Lou Hamer, that nobody’s free until everybody’s free.
That insight, along with the progress and lessons from my generation, together form a large, formidable movement that eschews respectability politics and precedents in favor of making sure the future looks a lot different from the past. We can stand together, participating as voters and plugged-in civilians, as the first step to marching towards a more equitable tomorrow. Lawmakers should start drafting their solutions now, or risk getting left behind in our movement’s undertow.
Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr. is the President & CEO of Hip Hop Caucus and host of the award-winning podcast, The Coolest Show.