OPINION – Many environmental leaders have latched onto issues that tend to grab headlines and are highly politicized, like stopping the construction of oil pipelines and suing energy companies for climate change. But there are also the day-to-day (but often overlooked) concerns of people living near garbage dumps, incinerators, rail yards and other environmental dangers.

In far too many cases, these dangers are in communities that are poor and non-white.

Now, though, in an inspired move of environmental populism, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra recently announced the creation of the Bureau of Environmental Justice, a unit with a mission to focus on the hazards these communities quietly confront day in and day out.

“The harsh reality is that some communities in California — particularly low-income communities and communities of color — continue to bear the brunt of pollution from industrial development, poor land-use decisions, transportation, and trade corridors,” Becerra said in a statement. “Meeting the needs of these communities requires our focused attention.”

To be sure, Becerra is not shunning the high-profile issues that many in the environmental movement embrace. He has been more than willing to take on the Trump Administration’s policies affecting California. His office has filed 30 lawsuits, challenging the Administration’s calls to open the California coast to offshore oil drilling, suspend Obama-Era regulations to protect streams and wetlands, and repeal the Clean Power Plan. Becerra has yet to lose an environmental lawsuit.

At the same time, Becerra knows his a major part of his job is to reduce pollution-related health hazards impacting daily life for too many Californians, especially those living in low-income communities and racial minority communities. Rather than anti-corporate grandstanding and finger pointing about hypothetical future environmental problems, he is deploying resources to address current challenges.

Becerra’s focus on the struggles of average people is likely an extension of his personal experience. The son of Mexican immigrants, he grew up in very modest circumstances in Sacramento but earned a law degree from Stanford University. He developed a passion for public service early in life and served in the U.S. House of Representatives for nearly 25 years, starting in 1993, representing downtown Los Angeles. And yet, he knows the playing field is not level for many low-income and minority Americans.

The economic disparity of environmental stewardship is hardly a new issue. More than 30 years ago, veterans of the Civil Rights Movement coined the term environmental racism, and documented the pattern at North Carolina’s Warren County PCBs landfill, Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley,” Chicago’s South Side, Tennessee’s Dickson County, Houston’s Sunnyside garbage dump and other places across the country. According to a study on environmental justice sponsored by the United Church of Christ 10 years ago, 81 percent of Californians who lived in neighborhoods that were within a few miles of large commercial hazardous waste facilities were people of color. Living in such areas has been linked to lifelong health consequences.

While progressives generally pride themselves as being champions for economic equality and justice, the environmental movement is fairly elitist in its composition and its priorities. A report issued last year by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy concluded that environmental funders, in contrast to other philanthropic donors, are less likely to support disadvantaged people. In addition, the report found that organizations with annual budgets greater than $5 million comprise a mere two percent of all environmental organizations but receive more than half of all environmental grants and donations.

Even within organizations, there is little diversity. A report from 2014, “The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations,” found that people of color support environmental protection at a higher rate than Whites but a “green ceiling” persists in a range of organizations. Minority representation among the staffs of these groups tops out a mere 16 percent, according to the report.

These reports reveal a bias against small, grassroots organizations in local communities and a possibly monolithic world view. This likely skews perceptions of what really matters with environmental justice. It is also a bad way to build an effective movement for change. The disconnect might explain why several California municipalities are suing companies they see as responsible for climate change at the very moment the state’s attorney general is directing resources to help the people environmental crusaders seem to have overlooked.

The money and media attention will probably continue to favor multi-million-dollar campaigns embraced by well-known activists such as hedge fund billion and activist Tom Steyer to vilify the energy industry. If the billions spent to enact cap-and-trade legislation in the 2000s is any indication, environmentalists won’t get much bang for their buck. On the other hand, targeted efforts by public officials like Xavier Becerra actually have a chance of making life better for average people.
By Hazel Trice Edney

Award-winning journalist Hazel Trice Edney is editor-in-chief of the Trice Edney News Wire. She is a veteran reporter specializing in issues pertaining to racial inequities.