The siting of a nuclear waste facility on Native American land in Ward Valley is just one piece in a deadly pattern of environmental degradation in communities of color in the United States. The majority of nuclear waste dumps sit on Native soil, and all of the us' nuclear weapons have been tested on Native land, primarily Western Shoshone territory in Nevada. Latino farmworkers in the Central Valley are routinely exposed to pesticide spraying, and three out of five African Americans live in communities with abandoned toxic waste sites.
Toxic Struggles is a well constructed anthology that provides a history and framework for the environmental justice movement, as well as analysis of the political and economic forces at the root cause of environmental racism. Above all, Toxic Struggles provides a class analysis of environmental racism and fingers corporate America as the beneficiary of this country's destructive environmental practices.
The book is a collection of 23 essays assembled by the Center for Ecology and Social Justice in Washington, DC. The first partprovides the context of the environmental justice movement; the second highlights the issues and achievements of people organizing against the destruction of their communities.
Joni Seager, a Canadian feminist teaching at the University of Vermont, maintains that environmental destruction is not just a result of harmful activities but also "is the crisis of the dominant ideology," capitalism. She argues that raising issues of class, race, and gender is necessary to challenge to the corporate and governmental institutions that are the primary agents of environmental degradation.
This class analysis is a common theme throughout the book. Cynthia Hamilton, Director of African American Studies at the University of Rhode Island at Kingston, focuses on land use in urban centers and on how African Americans have become victims of industrial policies in our cities. As middle-class whites moved into the suburbs, those left in the decaying urban core bear the brunt of the toxic mess left behind. (A current example is in East Oakland, where over 700 toxic sites have been identified in the Coliseum Redevelopment Area, a mostly African-American community. It is also littered with abandoned industrial sites that continue to erode the health of the community with poisoning from lead and other contaminants.)
Hamilton stresses that industrial and land use decisions must be based on the public good, not on corporate privilege. However, many of the authors in Toxic Struggles point out the emphasis on a social contract and a class analysis is often in direct contradiction to the policies of the "Group of Ten," the mainstream middle-class environmental organizations in the United States including the Sierra Club, the National Audubon Society, and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The second half of the book focuses on the conditions and struggles of communities of color, struggles usually ignored by the Group of Ten. Richard Moore and Louis Head of the SouthWest Organizing Project in Albuquerque, New Mexico examine the difficult relationship between the grassroots movements organized primarily by people of color, and the Group of Ten. Among the issues raised are the hiring practices of the Group of Ten -- their staffs are almost entirely white -- and their commitment to working with grassroots coalitions.
It is interesting to note that the national organization that provided the major documentation of environmental racism in the United States was not one of the Group of Ten. The United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice provided the study, Toxic Waste and Race, that contains the statistical ammunition for the environmental justice movement. The Commission for Racial Justice sponsored the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in October, 1991, that helped bring the environmental justice movement into the forefront of environmental activism in the United States today.
The one shortcoming of Toxic Struggles, particularly in the book's first section, is that some of the writing comes across as stiff and academic. Probably the inclusion of no less than six sociology professors set a pace that was not always lively. The writing comes alive in the book's second section as the contributors are also participants in local communities' toxic struggles. One of the most personal, and effective, pieces came from the late farmworkers' leader, Cesar Chavez.
Chavez begins not with a political statement but with a simple question. What is the life of a farmworker's daughter worth? Chavez takes victims of environmental racism, a group too-often discussed in the abstract mass by environmentalists and sociologists, and gives one a name: Miriam Robles, a ten- year-old girl who died in 1992 of leukemia. Two other children, Jimmy Caudillo and Monica Tovar, had already died in Tulare County, California. All were children of farmworkers heavily exposed to pesticides in the vineyards where they worked. Chavez then documents the history of the farmworkers' struggle against pesticide use in the fields and links environmental justice with workers' health and safety.
This highlights the sharpest difference between the environmental justice movement and the middle class Group of Ten. Both movements share a deep concern with the health of our planet and the destructive practices that humanity can and must end. The environmental justice movement also focuses on people, particularly poor and working class people like Miriam Robles, who bear the brunt of the environmental degradation caused by this society's economic and social policies. That message is conveyed with conviction by Toxic Struggles, a "must-read" for those committed to fighting environmental racism.