Black Lives Matter has ignited a much-needed global movement to combat racial discrimination. However, one increasingly deadly form of prejudice that hovers under the radar is environmental racism.

Khaled Diab examines why (environmental) racism matters and what the environmental movement can do to combat it and to promote greater diversity.

Although police brutality has claimed too many black lives in America, the death of George Floyd, a father of five and grandfather of two, proved to be a final straw for many.

That a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, should kneel on a black man’s neck sparked painful memories of centuries of slavery and subjugation, of segregation and public lynchings. It was also a symbolic mockery of the “take a knee” protests against police brutality and racism.

That a white police officer in front of a camera should crush a black man’s neck for nearly nine minutes, ignoring George Floyd’s desperate appeals that “I can’t breathe”, spoke of unspeakable cruelty and a sense of impunity.

Even though the Black Lives Matters movement has been around since 2013, in the wake of George Floyd’s cruel killing the protests spread to every corner of the United States, reaching over 2,000 cities and towns in 50 states.

Shades of prejudice

As we Europeans gaze in dismay across the Atlantic at the generations of racism and discrimination that brought America to this sorry impasse, we must not, tempting as it seems, believe we are somehow superior when it comes to tolerance and multiculturalism.

This is exactly what happened in the United States. It does not require much of a stretch of memory to recall the heady days when Barack Obama, who was possibly more popular in Europe than in his own country, became America’s first black president (although he was half white, of course).

At the time, a triumphal America was patting itself on the back for its enlightenment and tolerance. But while many in the establishment were loudly proclaiming the birth of a post-racial society, bigotry, prejudice and hatred were left to fester and grow.

Race to the bottom

Racism is a major and growing challenge in Europe, although the scale and nature of the problem varies widely.

This is reflected in such trends as the rise of far-right parties, including openly fascistic ones, burgeoning anti-minority and refugee sentiment, a growing wave of racially motivated crimes, with widescale underreporting of racial harassment and violence, as well as the alarming rise in violent neo-Nazi and white supremacist extremism.

This partly explains why the Black Lives Matter movement has resonated so much in Europe. Beyond the natural human urge to express solidarity with the downtrodden and oppressed, events across the Atlantic threw into sharp focus the bigotry and discrimination in our own societies.

Many came out to protest racism, police brutality and the legacy of slavery in their own societies. Although Europe prides itself on having led the global charge to abolish slavery in the 19th century, European nations profited immensely from the slave trade and from trading in the products created using slave labour, such as sugar, tobacco, cotton and rubber.

This legacy is even glorified in some public spaces, which became targets for protesters, such as when the infamous statue of the British slave trader Edward Colston was toppled in Bristol.

Black Lives Matter protest in Brussels. Photo: Roberta Arbinolo

In Belgium, a long-raging debate over what to do with the monuments commemorating King Leopold II, who caused millions of deaths in the deceptively named Congo Free State which he personally owned and ran as his private de facto slave colony, reached a climax with the defacement, vandalisation and removal of his statues across the country.

Banished to the wastelands

Racism pushes its subjects to the margins of society. This occurs not just culturally, socially and economically but often also physically. Such environmental racism is an underappreciated and underexamined form of discrimination which we at the EEB have been working to highlight and combat.

We recently released a report – which partly draws on the Environmental Justice Atlas, the world’s largest database of ecological conflicts – exposing the environmental racism targeting one of Europe’s most marginalised minorities, the Roma.

Pushed to the Wastelands’ investigates the systemic and systematic discrimination against many Roma communities which pushes them out into marginal and polluted lands and neighbourhoods, as well as deprives them of access to public utilities, healthcare and basic environmental services, such as piped drinking water, adequate sanitation and waste management.

“For too long, environmental racism in Europe has remained an underappreciated issue. European policies for the inclusion of Roma communities have turned a blind eye to this form of discrimination,” observes the EEB’s Director of Global Policies and Sustainability Patrizia Heidegger, who is the co-author of the report. “Environmental rights, which all EU countries have committed to, have to be granted to everyone without any discrimination based on ethnic and social identity.  In light of the current crisis, the Commission needs to prioritise a stronger policy framework for Roma inclusion.”

Environmental racism is also a major problem in other parts of the world, such as in the United States, where the term was first coined and where numerous studies, including one by the US’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), have confirmed its existence and consequences.

Environmental racism is partly a product of another form of toxic discrimination, classism, as people of colour tend to be disproportionately poor in western societies.

In addition, poverty is one of the main factors behind deaths from air pollution. Of the estimated 7 million people killed by polluted air each year, the vast majority are in poor and developing countries and, of these, most are poor or live in poor neighbourhoods, according to the UN.

But class alone cannot explain this phenomenon, since even well-off members of minority groups are more likely to suffer the effects of pollution and environmental degradation, according to Harriet Washington’s recent book on environmental racism.

Health warning: Racism kills

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown this racial inequality into stark relief. Numerous countries have reported significantly higher coronavirus death rates amongst minority groups. These include the United States, where three times as many blacks have died of COVID-19 as whites, Canada and the UK.

Minorities do not only get hit harder by pandemics, they are often scapegoated or blamed for them – as has occurred here in Europe with the Roma or in India with Muslims.

Racist killers who actively murder are, mercifully, still rare. However, racism, particularly the environmental variety, kills on a far grander and more horrifying scale by stacking the system against minorities, neglecting their health and education, and forcing them to shoulder a heavier proportion of the environmental burden.

What makes matters worse and harder to challenge or change is that environmental racism is an invisible assassin, operating in the murky shadowlands on the edges of society’s consciousness and conscience.

Unlike racist murders or hate crimes, where there are clear individuals to blame and towards whom people can direct their outrage, environmental racism is so hardwired into the system that it is often difficult to detect and unravel, so much so that sometimes even those involved in perpetuating it do not realise they are part of a racist enterprise.

We need to take a longer, harder look at environmental racism – systems that produce and perpetuate inequalities in exposure to environmental pollutants,” Harriet Washington urges. “By anticipating the outsized environmental assaults that people of colour face, we can act to protect lives during the current pandemic and future outbreaks.”

The green movement’s white face

The mainstream environmental movement in many countries has historically had a predominantly pale complexion, and whites still tend, by and large, to dominate the large NGOs. But, in my view, though there was a history of racism in the early days of the environmental movement, this relative lack of diversity today is not a reflection of racism but a legacy issue and an expression of wider structural problems plaguing society.

At the EEB, for example, the organisation is committed to diversity. We also work to combat environmental racism, lobby the EU to implement the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), campaign for environmental justice in the Global South and advocate that rich western countries take up the bulk of the burden for the environmental crisis that they played an outsized role in creating to safeguard a just transition to sustainability.

Despite this, the network’s Brussels headquarters, though it reflects well the majority linguistic and cultural diversity within the EU, is 50 shades of white, with only myself and a small handful of colleagues belonging to minority groups.

This is far from intentional. It reflects a general challenge facing the so-called Brussels bubble, where the EU institutions and organisations dealing with them are overwhelmingly white.

On a personal level, this does not bother me or make me feel uncomfortable. I get on with my colleagues extremely well and have not experienced any racism at work.

Besides, as somebody who is well aware that race is a myth invented by racists as a kind of extension of tribalism and has no foundation in biology or science, I don’t care how much melanin people have in their skin. That said, racism is very real and to combat it requires listening to and empowering those who suffer its consequences.

The EEB is keen to further tackle this issue. Taking a leaf out of the EEB’s successful efforts to promote gender diversity, an internal conversation is in motion to analyse the reasons behind this relative shortage and to bolster the organisation’s racial and ethnic diversity.

Out of the spotlight

The whiteness of the environmental movement is also partly a matter of public perceptions, often fuelled by unconscious bias. Moreover, rather than not being in the picture, non-white activists are sometimes airbrushed or edited out of it because white voices carry more cultural weight.  

On one notorious recent occasion, this occurred quite literally. The AP news agency cropped a photo of a group of five young female climate activists outside this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos to exclude the only black face amongst them, the Ugandan activist Vanessa Nakate. “None of my comments from the press conference were included. It was like I wasn’t even there,” Nakate said.

Her fellow activists in the photo were also incensed by the omission.

Frontline defenders

Away from international fora and western capitals, on the frontlines of the struggle for environmental justice, brown and black activists are leading the charge, often at great personal risk.

The people who operate at the frontlines in the Global South to stop destructive mining or plantations basically do the risky and hard work for all of us,” explains Nick Meynen, the EEB’s Policy Officer for Environmental and Economic Justice. “They don’t only protect their own living environment, together, they stand between humanity and the last reserves of valuable nature, biodiversity or burnable fuels buried in the earth.”

Despite the dangers they face and the negligible attention they receive from the international media, these grassroots environmental defenders have been surprisingly successful.

A groundbreaking study which analysed almost 3,000 cases of environmental conflicts from the Environmental Justice Atlas found that more than a quarter of campaigns to halt environmentally and socially destructive projects were successful if campaigning started early and employed a variety of resistance strategies.

However, this activism, which often occurs in dangerous authoritarian contexts, comes with a high price tag attached. These activists face high rates of criminalisation (20% of cases), physical violence (18%), and assassinations (13%). These numbers increase significantly when Indigenous people are involved.

This makes it imperative on the mainstream environmental movement not only to enhance its own diversity but to stand in solidarity with frontline defenders, to better listen to them, and to empower them.

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