This Centers for Disease Control and Prevention photo shows the kind of extreme pollutants that disparately affect the health of urban children.

SACRAMENTO – In their drive to define the national debate over protecting the environment, many leaders of today’s environmental movement engage in pitched battles over interstate oil and gas pipelines, drilling rights, global warming and energy policy in the United States.

Obviously, these are issues worthy of debate. But all too frequently, the day-to-day environmental hazards afflicting residents of America’s inner cities are ignored or marginalized. California’s Attorney General, Xavier Becerra, is working to change this dynamic.

Through a newly established Environmental Justice Bureau, Becerra is using the authority and resources of his office to assist Californians whose plight rarely makes headlines. His focus is a humbling reminder about what ultimately should drive environmentalism: the right of people – regardless of their political views, income, or ethnic and racial heritage — to live in places that won’t sicken them and their children.

Staffed by four attorneys from the AG’s office, the Bureau will seek to compel businesses and government agencies to clean contaminated drinking water, reduce exposure to lead and other toxins and prevent illegal waste discharges in communities burdened disproportionately by pollution. Not surprisingly, African-Americans and Hispanics are in the majority in many of these communities. These Californians are more likely to have health problems and miss school and work. Such health struggles can make it even harder than it already is to pursue opportunities and achieve social mobility.

“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.”

For years, the health and safety of people drove and defined goals for cleaner air, cleaner water, and bans of harmful substances. Today, the environmental movement can appear to be more inspired by a desire by many environmental leaders to be part of a historic international crusade rather than ensuring that children in neighborhoods like East Los Angeles have safe places to be, well, children.

Indeed, wealthy individuals and foundations are pouring millions of dollars into national and international campaigns attacking energy companies for producing fossil fuels linked to climate change.

Groups such as have elevated their profile by challenging the energy industry at a time when it powers most of America with fossil fuels. But the unintended consequence is that environmentalism is morphing into a narrowly focused movement.

Climate change, however defined, cannot be ignored, and the motives of some environmentalists and their supporters are often laudable. However, it is fair to ask if the vanguard of today’s environmental community’s determination to heal the planet suffers from a detachment from the daily worries of people in neglected urban neighborhoods dominated by people of color.

Becerra, the Golden State’s first Hispanic AG, comes from modest means, a fact that helps explain his devotion to environmental justice. As a Congressman and now as AG, he takes seriously the persistent overlap between poverty and proximity to unhealthy places to live. Historically, it has been easier to route highways and locate industrial facilities closer to where people with limited means and minimal to no political clout live, rather than in more well-to-do areas where residents are highly politically engaged and connected.

As property values drop and chances to sell their homes diminish, low-income people find themselves with no way out. They remain trapped in areas made unhealthy by noise, toxic fumes, or any multiple combination of negative environmental circumstances. The comorbidities that present among these communities are startling – an abysmal indictment of the consequences of societal neglect.

Becerra’s focus on immediate environmental threats facing people in California’s cities does not mean he is indifferent to the agenda of the environmental elite. Recently, he told the Sacramento Bee he might focus on national issues like climate change.

But for now, Becerra deserves credit for recognizing that the sum of the modern environmental movement should not be defined by images of protestors being dragged from pipeline construction and the like. If Becerra’s Environmental Justice Bureau can yield tangible results toward improving the lives of marginalized Californians over the next few years, its success should serve as an example to environmental leaders and elected officials across the country.
By Khalil Abdullah

Khalil Abdullah, a Washington, D.C.-area writer and editor, staffed the committees on Transportation and Environment, and Telecommunications and Energy, for the National Black Caucus of State Legislators before serving as executive director. As a National Editor for San Francisco-based New America Media, he edited and occasionally wrote on environmental and energy issues.

Larry Lee

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