Connecting Sustainability to Slavery and Justice

Authors: Brandon Hoover- Director of Sustainability, Hannah Jacobs- Sustainability Studies ’19, Joel Johnson- Sustainability and English ’17, Madi Keaton- Environmental Science ’18

The Messiah College Humanities Symposium is one of the events I look forward to the most each spring semester. In the same week, young academics who are just beginning to explore their passions for scholarship and activism present alongside seasoned scholars, many of whom have provided mentorship to the former over the years. It is an inspiring event that is filled with excitement and reflection, and even though it is the Humanities Symposium, it highlights the amazing interdisciplinary work happening at the College. This year’s Symposium was particularly exciting because Sustainability, one of the College interdisciplinary majors, was well represented.

The symposium’s theme this year, Slavery and Justice from Antiquity to the Present, at first glance does not have a lot to do with sustainability. It’s often thought, what does the environment have to do with slavery and justice? Well, Senior Joel Johnson and Junior Madi Keaton shared two presentations that specifically address the misconception that environmental and social ecologies are incompatible areas of study. They both highlighted the deep ecological and social connection we have to land and how, through socially unjust policies and philosophy, land has either been taken or degraded in a way that categorically oppresses the marginalized in society. Both of these injustices (the taking and the degrading) disproportionately affect communities of color, be they black, Latino, or native communities, and that the myth of whiteness as superior has long been at the center of both land grabs and environmental injustices. Both Madi and Joel made beautiful arguments that in order to heal from racial injustices, we must understand our social and ecological relationship to land, and begin to embrace the fact that social healing must not be separated from ecological healing.

Joel and Maid’s passion for reconciliation to land and people is on full display in excerpts (posted with permission from the authors) below:

Joel Johnson (’17), Sustainability and English double Major, reflects on Ta Nehisi Coates and the legacy of slavery, whiteness, and place:

But race is the child of racism, not the father. And the process of naming “the people” has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy. Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes which are indelible—this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white” (Ta Nehisi Coates, 7).

Now I wish we had time to just sit in that. The brutal beauty of authors and speakers like Ta Nehisi and Mark Charles who was here on Thursday or Kelly Brown Douglas who spoke Wednesday, is that they force us to confront the painful realities—the truth—of our past. They direct us to remember and lament. But I have to admit that I’m not always very good at that, and when I read words like Ta Nehisi’s, I start to scramble for the BUT… for the reconciliation, the where do we go from here?

And I thought that Coates’ next paragraph was my way out

[IV] He says, “The new people were something else before they were white—Catholic, Corsican, Welsh, Mennonite, Jewish—and if all our national hopes have any fulfillment, then they will have to become something else again.” 

And so I began to think about myself. If whiteness is a myth, what is my place? What identifier can I reclaim that will detach me from the legacy of taking and the mythology of whiteness? (And as I say that I can imagine Ta Nehisi shaking his head…) But this is where my mind went.

My ancestry would point me to England and Ireland, but I’m two decades into my life and I’ve never stepped foot in those places. My home is Arizona. Anyone who knows anything about me knows how important this place is to me—to defining me. And so I began to wonder, can I reclaim a new name that has meaning apart from the flaying of backs?

Rather than being white, can I be Arizonan?

… Is being from a place about birthright? About knowledge? Or maybe, is there a more mystical, almost geological process that takes place, where a land shapes and forms a consciousness?

So I went to Babine’s book, and I found her wrestling with this idea of place in some interesting ways.

She gestures to the disconnect that Coates points out and I have felt so clearly when she writes of returning home, “I felt no calling to the place the Kleenes have called home for six generations . . . But I want the connection. I want to feel something. I should feel something, and because I don’t, I feel a bit empty and unworthy. 

 . . . This land is both mine and not mine, ambiguous landowning and land- belonging common to every other member of settler cultures in this country” (Babine)

She asks, why do we call this sacred Midwestern text  “Little House on the Prairie” and not “Little Squatter on the Diminished Osage Reserve?”

This is where place become problematic for myself and my white brothers and sisters. This is the trouble of constructing a mythology of place. This land, my own home in Arizona, is mine by right of governmental ownership, but not at all mine in terms of genealogy, history, and spirit. As a white man I am still the child of a settler, and that brings me back to Ta Nehisi (the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land)

The question is who belongs here? Whose place is this?

And this is the dichotomy that I’m still wrestling with, because on one hand, white people cannot afford not to belong here any longer— Wendell Berry wrote, “The first and greatest American revolution, which has never been superseded, was the coming of people who did not look upon the land as their homeland.” Legacies of colonialism, of taking, of viewing this land and the people who inhabited it as a blank canvas for progress, are connected to some of the deepest wounds in the history of this place.

But at the same time I cannot pretend that Arizona belongs to me. Rejecting the mythology of whiteness, only to assume a mythology of place is moving sideways, not forwards. Pennsylvania, Arizona. These places are homes to me, but do not, and never will belong to me.

So my thought is that maybe we Settlers need to change our paradigm. Maybe instead of scrambling to defend our rights to authority over this place, we need to instead submit ourselves to our places and the people, plants, and animals who inhabited them long before us. Rather than wanting so desperately our places to belong to us, maybe we need to begin the process of belonging to them.

Madi Keaton, (’18), Environmental Science, reflects on the history of Environmental Justice, and its important history across America.

In America, if you are not white, you are more likely to have poorer health. For example, in 2012, 21 percent of black children were diagnosed with asthma compared to 15 percent Latino children and only 8-12 percent white children (United States Department of Health and Human Services). This public health issue is not solely tied to economics or education or politics. Rather, it is closely intertwined with environmental racism, which is the idea that poor people and people of color within the United States are exposed to a greater amount of pollution than rich people and white people. (Cole & Foster, 2001, pg.10).

The Civil Rights Movement of the mid-twentieth century served as the start of the recognition of environmental racism. In fact, the leaders who started the Environmental Justice Movement were civil rights leaders and pastors (pg. 20). They came to realize that Black Americans bore a disproportionate amount of environmental pollution than their white neighbors and decided to include environmental justice in the latter portions of the Civil Rights Movement. Many of these hazards included occupational hazards, lead poisoning, air pollution, garbage dumps and incinerators, and toxic waste. Many studies confirmed that people of color were far more likely to be exposed to these health hazards than white people, even when taking into account poverty (pgs. 54-55).

Of course, environmental racism is not just an issue for African-Americans. For example, Cesar Chavez led Latino farm workers in the 1960s and fought for workplace rights, including protection against the pesticides that many of the workers were exposed to (Skelton & Miller, 2016). People of Color across the United States are exposed to unfair levels of pollutants and live in communities where their surroundings are toxic to their family’s health. However, the focus on this paper will center on the unique experience of African-Americans and the tracing of environmental racism from slavery until today.

In the United States, the owning of quality land is something that has, for most of history, excluded blacks. The history of housing itself was steeped in racial segregation for many decades and many would argue that it still is. The best quality land was given to whites and the leftovers to blacks, allowing whites to become economically more advanced, no matter how “equal” the laws were (Prakesh, 2013). In particular, the GI Bill’s exclusion of African-Americans is partially to blame for today’s high rates of poverty among the black population. When black veterans returned home from World War II, many were illegally excluded from receiving the benefits of the GI Bill that their fellow white soldiers received. One example of this discrimination was clearly seen in Mississippi, where out of 3,229 low-interest loans for homes, farms, and businesses through the GI Bill, only 2 were offered to black veterans. Today, we see the results of the GI Bill within the reality that the typical home of a white family is 10 times the average net worth of an African-American home (Katznelson, 2005). The poor quality of land that most African-Americans had to make do with is central to the causation behind environmental racism.

Madi went through to explain the sequence of events from slavery to present time. This includes the Houston Garbage Dump in 1967 and the garbage worker strike in 1968. However, it was Warren County in North Carolina that is often cited as the first official start of the recognition of environmental racism. In 1982, it was decided that a mostly African-American community in Warren County would be the host for a hazardous waste landfill. It was 75% African-American and had the highest proportion of African Americans in all of North Carolina’s counties. (Warren County NAACP, 2016). Though it did not ultimately prevent the implantation of the waste site, the Warren County protestors provided inspiration for other communities suffering from similar environmental injustices. It also led to the development of the famous Toxic Waste and Race, a 1987 study by the United Church of Christ that looked at the connections between race and waste sites.

This fired up the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, which took place in 1991. Then, protests across the country began to pick up. In 1992, citizens of the city of Chester, Pennsylvania met to discuss the noise and dust brought to their city by garbage trucks. Chester had one of the largest garbage incinerators in the country, which meant that a constant stream of garbage trucks rumbled down residential streets. The incinerator burned 2,000 tons of trash per day and accepted trash from surrounding New Jersey and New York, as well as Delaware (Cole & Foster, 2001, pg. 36). The vibration from the big trucks caused many house foundations to crack and property values dropped (pg. 35). In 1994, then-President Bill Clinton signed an executive order to create an interagency working group devoted to environmental justice, with a focus on minority and low-income populations. Its goal was to have an equally protected and safe environment for all citizens.

Environmental injustice is still widespread within our country. . One of the most recent incidences include 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. One senator, Representative Barbara Lee, argued that,

“…we cannot have a reasonable dialogue about race if we do not begin by recognizing that white privilege, institutional racism, and structural inequalities still exist. And, there is no better evidence of this fact than the ways in which Hurricane Katrina disproportionately affected communities of color,” (2011).

Roughly ten years later, Flint, MI took over the news. On April 25, 2014, the city of Flint, MI switched its water supply from Detroit to the Flint River in order to cut costs. Flint’s citizens, who are 56.6% black (United States Census Bureau, 2015), began to complain about their water’s color and smell. In late summer, city officials told Flint citizens to begin to boil their water after finding bacteria in the tap water. Throughout the winter of 2015, city officials brushed off the issues with the water, telling the media that the water was not a threat to citizens’ health. In mid-February 2015, 104 parts per billion of lead was detected in the tap water of one home. More tests in other homes confirmed these findings in even higher levels. Scientist and professor Marc Edwards reported that the corrosiveness of the water was causing lead from the pipes to leach into the drinking water and Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha asked the city to stop using the Flint River as its water source, as her findings of lead in the blood of local children were dangerously high.

Racial injustice is a common theme within academia, but is rarely coupled with environmental injustice. Since the time of slavery, African-Americans have been disproportionately given poor land, poor water and air, and dangerous jobs. And despite the media’s attempts to paint an optimistic picture of today’s racial landscape, African-Americans were still left to bear the brunt of recent tragedies like 2005’s Hurricane Katrina and 2015’s Flint, Michigan Water Crisis. Other People of Color are suffering their own silent battles too, with many Hispanic families still living beside hazardous waste sites and Indigenous Americans still fighting the completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

We cannot continue to talk about racial injustice without mentioning the poor quality of the environments that surround these marginalized groups of people. We cannot continue to discuss sustainable practices and eco-conscious policies without remembering the people who are negatively impacted by pollution the most. In order to put forth meaningful policies and agendas, the environmental movement must take on a more holistic approach and continue to unearth pollution’s roots in systemic racism.


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