Issues Of The Environment: Commemorating 30 Years Of The Environmental Justice Movement

Feb 17, 2021

Dr. Paul Mohai, professor of environmental justice at the University of Michigan
Credit University of Michigan / umich.edu

The concept of environmental justice can traced back to the 1970's.  But, it wasn't until the 1990's when the movement really began to take shape, thanks to the works of such scholars as Dr. Bunyan Bryant and Dr. Paul Mohai.  Dr. Mohai looks back at the work he and his colleagues have done over the last three decades in a conversation with WEMU's David Fair.


Overview

  • It is widely recognized that the environmental justice movement first gained traction in 1982 in a predominately African-American community in Warren County, North Carolina.  University of Michigan professors Bunyan Bryant (a graduate of EMU) and Paul Mohai were pioneers in the movement.  Bunyan Bryant—who in 1972 had become the first African American to join the SNRE faculty—attended a meeting at the Federation of Southern Cooperative in Sumter County.  Shortly after, he joined with Professor Mohai in Ann Arbor.
  • In the early 1990s, during the Clinton years, it was the period when the environmental justice concept “hit the radar” of the EPA and federal government.  Professors Byrant and Mohai led a team of academics and activists to advise the U.S. EPA on environmental justice policy. Drs. Bryant and Mohai published Race and the Incidence of Environmental Hazards, one of the first major scholarly books examining the links between race, class, and environmental hazards. 
  • In 1991, Drs. Bryant and Mohai served on the advisory committee to the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, held in Washington D.C. with nearly 1000 people, mostly of color.  The outcomes of this conference included the defining of environmental justice as a national movement and the articulation of the 17 principles of Environmental Justice that have been used as guidelines for organizing local communities.
  • In 1992, the University of Michigan became the first, and only, in the U.S. to launch an Environmental Justice program that offers both undergraduate and graduate degree specializations. In the early 2000’s, Drs. Mohai and Bryant repeatedly demonstrated that Black Americans care as much, or more, than their white counterparts, and vote accordingly. 
  • In 2007, Dr. Mohai teamed with EJ scholars Dr. Robert D. Bullard, Dr. Robin Saha, and Dr. Beverly Wright to update the 1987 report Toxic Wastes and Race in the U.S. Applying the distance-based methods pioneered by Drs. Mohai and Saha, The new study, Toxic Wastes and Race at 20, reveals that poor people and people of color are even more concentrated around hazardous waste sites than found 20 years previously.  In July 2007, the team presents its findings at the first-ever hearings on environmental justice held in the U.S. Senate, chaired by Senator Hillary Clinton.
  • In 2009, Dr. Mohai, along with colleagues Dr. Paula Lantz, Dr. Jeffrey Morenoff, Dr. James House, and Richard Mero at the Institute for Social Research, publish the first national-level study linking public health data with the location of major industrial polluters.  They find that racial disparities in the location of the polluters persist even when controlling for income, education, and other socioeconomic characteristics.  They find that the greatest disparities exist in the metropolitan areas of the Midwest.
  • In the past five years, Dr. Mohai has been called to advise on the Flint Water Crisis and present evidence of environmental injustice in Detroit and Flint to the U.S. House. 
  • At 30, the environmental justice movement is gaining momentum as systemic racism is more accepted as a social reality by the general population.  Currently, Dr. Mohai serves with SEAS Professors Tony Reames and SEAS Masters student John Petoskey to the Michigan Advisory Council on Environmental Justice (MAC-EJ), the first-ever external advisory council to help guide environmental justice policy and decision-making in Michigan.

Pioneers of Environmental Justice

THE MOVEMENT

It is widely recognized that the environmental justice movement first gained traction in 1982 in a predominately African-American community in Warren County, North Carolina.  

During that year, the community had been designated as the future site of a hazardous waste landfill—one that would accept the PCB-contaminated soil resulting from the illegal dumping of toxic waste along roadways.  Though the state was pressed to consider alternative sites, the designation of the landfill site in the small African American community remained unchanged.

In response, the Commission for Racial Justice of the United Church of Christ, in tandem with other organizers, staged a massive protest in which more than 500 protesters were arrested, including a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.  Although the protest failed to keep the landfill out of the community, the environmental justice movement had begun in earnest—as minority communities across the country began to fight for their environmental rights.

RESEARCH AND EDUCATION

1987: 

Recognized as a pioneer in environmental justice, Professor Bunyan Bryant—who in 1972 had become the first African American to join the faculty—attended a meeting at the Federation of Southern Cooperative in Sumter County.  While in the area, Professor Bryant visited Emelle, Alabama, home of the country's largest toxic landfill—a facility that received hazardous waste from 48 states and 3 foreign countries.  Sumter County, Bryant knew, was approximately 70 percent Black and one of the poorest counties in the nation. 

Through a community activist, Bryant got his hands on the newly issued United Church of Christ Report on Race and Toxic Wastes in the United States—which stated that among a variety of indicators, race was the best predictor of the location of hazardous waste facilities in the U.S.

Shortly after, Bryant referred the report to newly-hired SEAS colleague, Professor Paul Mohai, also a pioneer in the field of environmental justice, who at the time was analyzing African American attitudes about environmental issues from a large national survey.  “Our mutual interest and desire for further exploration of these issues eventually led us to organize two important events in 1990,” wrote Bryant in 1997.

1990:

The first event was “The Michigan Conference on Race and the Incidence of Environmental Hazards” held at the school in January 1990.  The historic conference would help to springboard environmental justice as a legitimate academic endeavor and spark high-level government meetings.  These meetings contribute to President Bill Clinton signing the Executive Order “Federal Action to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations” and a special task force by the EPA.

“The early 1990s was when environmental justice really hit the national radar screen for the EPA and the federal government,” said Bryant. “I believe that the 1990 conference was the main catalyst.”  Byrant and Mohai led a team of academics and activists to advise the U.S. EPA on environmental justice policy.  The EPA dubbed this group the “Michigan Coalition,” which met with the EPA throughout the early 1990s.  In its 1992 report, Environmental Equity: Reducing Risks for All Communities, the EPA acknowledged the 1990 Michigan Conference as bringing the issue of environmental racism and injustice to the attention of the agency.

Also as an outcome of the conference, Drs. Bryant and Mohai published Race and the Incidence of Environmental Hazards, one of the first major scholarly books examining the links between race, class, and environmental hazards. 

Also participating at the conference was Dorceta Taylor, a dual PhD student at Yale at the time.  Taylor would go on to join the faculty in 1998 and become a renowned scholar in environmental justice.  She now serves as SEAS Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. 

In a second important event in 1990, Drs. Mohai and Bryant were appointed Faculty Investigators of the U-M 1990 Detroit Area Study on Race and Environmental Hazards, the first survey research study at the time to study white and African American attitudes about environmental issues in the Detroit metropolitan area.  It was also the first environmental justice analysis ever conducted in the metro area, examining the concentration of poor and African American residents around hazardous waste sites and polluting industrial facilities.

In 1990, Dr. Mohai also published his article “Black Environmentalism,” the first to challenge with national-level survey data the notion that African Americans are not as concerned about the environment as white Americans.

1991:

Drs. Bryant and Mohai served on the advisory committee to the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, held in Washington D.C. with nearly 1000 people, mostly of color.  The outcomes of this conference included the defining of environmental justice as a national movement and the articulation of the 17 principles of Environmental Justice that have been used as guidelines for organizing local communities.

1992:

The school becomes the first and only in the U.S. to launch an Environmental Justice program that offers both undergraduate and graduate degree specializations.

1993:

Dr. Mohai provides testimony about the weight of the evidence pertaining to community claims about environmental racism before the House Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights, Committee on the Judiciary, U.S. House of Representatives, Washington, D.C., March 4, 1993. 

1995: 

In an article entitled “The Demographics of Dumping Revisited,” published in the Virginia Environmental Law Journal, Dr. Mohai debunks claims made by University of Massachusetts demographers that race plays no role in the distribution of hazardous waste sites as contended in the landmark report Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States.

1998:

In an article entitled “Is There a 'Race' Effect on Environmental Quality?,” published in Public Opinion Quarterly, Drs. Mohai and Bryant draw on data from the 1990 Detroit Area Study to demonstrate that African Americans are much more concerned about pollution issues than their white counterparts. Furthermore, their concern is related to the fact that they tend to live in more environmentally contaminated neighborhoods.  Contrary to conventional wisdom, Mohai and Bryant found no statistically significant differences between blacks and whites in their expressed concerns about and appreciation for the natural environment.

2002:

In an article entitled “Race and Environmental Voting in the U.S. Congress,” published in Social Science Quarterly, Dr. Mohai and graduate student David Kerhner demonstrate that members of the Congressional Black Caucus consistently vote more pro-environmentally than their white counterparts and that the strong support of African-American members of Congress for environmental legislation goes beyond differences in party affiliation and ideology.  

2003:

Dr. Mohai publishes the first comprehensive analysis of African Americans involvement in environmental issues in the journal Environment.  In this article, he demonstrates from a wide variety of data sources that, contrary to wide-held beliefs, African Americans are active on environmental issues and tend to express greater concern about the environment than their white counterparts, especially when those issues involve impacts on human health.  Furthermore, these trends have existed for some time. 

2005:

Environmental Justice becomes one of the school’s fields of study.

2007:

Dr. Mohai teams with EJ scholars Dr. Robert D. Bullard, Dr. Robin Saha, and Dr. Beverly Wright to update the 1987 Report Toxic Wastes and Race in the U.S.  Applying the distance-based methods pioneered by Drs. Mohai and Saha,  The new study, Toxic Wastes and Race at 20, reveals that poor people and people of color are even more concentrated around hazardous waste sites than found 20 years previously.  In July 2007, the team presents its findings at the first-ever hearings on environmental justice held in the U.S. Senate, chaired by Senator Hillary Clinton.

2008:

Dr. Byrant is awarded the William D. Milliken Distinguished Service Award, the State‟s highest environmental honor by the Michigan Environmental Council.  He is also awarded the Environmental Leadership Award for Recognition of Leadership and Contributions Promoting Environmental Justice by the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS).

2009: 

As the first book in a three-part series, Dr. Dorceta Taylor publishes The Environment and the People in American Cities (Duke University Press, 2009), focusing on the environmental challenges American cities faced in the 17th through 20th Centuries.  Her research documents the race, class, and gender dynamics that arose as urban dwellers tried to deal with environmental problems.

Dr. Mohai, along with colleagues Dr. Paula Lantz, Dr. Jeffrey Morenoff, Dr. James House, and Richard Mero at the Institute for Social Research, publish the first national level-study linking public health data with the location of major industrial polluters.  They find that racial disparities in the location of the polluters persist even when controlling for income, education and other socioeconomic characteristics. They find that the greatest disparities exist in the metropolitan areas of the Midwest.  Results are published in the American Journal of Public Health.

2010:

Building on its reputation as the first major university program in environmental justice, as well as a tradition of commitment to diversity and the analysis of environmental inequities, the Environmental Justice Certificate Program is approved.

2011:

Through a grant from the Kresge Foundation, Dr. Mohai, along with colleague Dr. Byoung-Suk Kweon, Post-Doctoral Fellow Dr. Sanyun Lee, and graduate student Kerry Ard, conduct the first-ever statewide analysis of pollution burdens around public schools in Michigan.  They find that two-thirds of all schools are located in the more polluted parts of their districts, that the larger the number of poor students and students of color in the schools the greater the pollution burdens, and that pollution burdens around the schools are negatively related to student health and academic performance.  Their results are published in the journal Health Affairs.

2014:

Dr. Taylor publishes the second book in the third piece of her series, Toxic Communities: Environmental Racism, Industrial Pollution, and Residential Mobility (New York University Press, 2014) that chronicles the contamination of minority and low-income communities in the U.S.  The book documents how the history of racially discriminatory housing policies has effectively forced minorities into proximity with polluting industries, and incorporates insights from sociology and the study of urban development that had previously been ignored in environmental justice scholarship. 

SEAS EJ students Bernadette Grafton, Alejandro Colsa, Katy Hintzen, and Sara Orvis, advised by Drs. Rebecca Hardin and Paul Mohai,  identify the 40 most influential EJ conflicts in U.S. history by conducting a national survey of over 300 environmental justice leaders and experts across the U.S..  These 40 cases become the first U.S. EJ cases to be mapped onto the world EJ Atlas (https://ejatlas.org/) maintained by researchers at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, Spain. 

2016:

The second book of Dr. Taylor’s series, The Rise of the American Conservation Movement (Duke University Press), examines the emergence and rise of the American conservation movement from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s, demonstrating how race, class, and gender influenced every aspect of the movement from the establishment of parks to outdoor recreation and forest conservation; and the movement's links to nineteenth century ideologies.

Dr. Mohai  provides testimony about environmental racism to the Michigan Civil Rights Commission at hearings focused on the Flint Water Crisis.  The hearings gather testimony to determine if actions resulting in the poisoning of Flint's public water supply abridged the civil rights under state law of those affected.  The hearings result in the report: The Flint Water Crisis: Systemic Racism through the Lens of Flint.

2017:

SEAS Emeritus Professor and Flint Native Dr. Bunyan Bryant receives Environmental Justice Champion Award for his lifetime work to advance environmental and social justice at the Flint Environmental Justice Summit held in Flint, Michigan, March 2017.

2018:

Dr. Mohai serves on Governor Rick Snyder’s Environmental Justice Working Group which submits 33 recommendations to the Governor for advancing  environmental justice in Michigan in the wake of the Flint Water Crisis.

Dr. Mohai publishes “Environmental Justice and the Flint Water Crisis” in the journal Michigan Sociological Review.  The article provides a brief history of environmental justice, defines the concept, and analyzes the Flint Water Crisis through an environmental justice lens.

2019:

Dr. Tony Reames wins place on Grist 50 for his groundbreaking work on Energy Justice.

SEAS EJ students Laura Grier, Delia Mayor, and Brett Zeuner partner with the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition (MEJC), under Dr. Mohai as faculty advisor, to create an EJ Screening Tool and use it to conduct the first-ever statewide environmental justice assessment for Michigan.  The student team presents their findings to Michigan’s Interagency EJ Response Team in Lansing, which works to implement the EJ Screening Tool for State government. 

Dr. Mohai presents testimony about environmental injustices in Michigan to the U.S. House 

Subcommittee on Environment, chaired by U.S. Representatives Harley Rouda and Rashida Tlaib.  The hearings examine air and water pollution in Michigan, with a specific focus on Detroit and Flint, and on the disparate impacts of pollution on low-income communities and communities of color.  The hearings also explore the negative health effects of living in heavily polluted areas and community efforts to hold industry and elected officials accountable for past and current actions.

2020:

Governor Gretchen Whitmer appoints SEAS Professors Tony Reames and Paul Mohai and SEAS Masters student John Petoskey to the Michigan Advisory Council on Environmental Justice (MAC-EJ), the first-ever external advisory council to help guide environmental justice policy and decision-making in Michigan.

SEAS and the University of Michigan celebrate the 30th Anniversary of the 1990 Michigan Conference on Race and the Environment, credited for bringing environmental justice to the attention of the federal government and launching the academic field of environmental justice.  The celebration includes EJ student flash talks and panel discussions by EJ community leaders and renown national EJ leaders and experts.

Today, the strength of the environmental justice program at SEAS continues to draw students to “where it all began” in education and research.  Building upon the vision of their predecessors, environmental justice students and researchers examine how and why inequalities arise and are maintained around the world.  They tackle global issues like climate vulnerability and adaptation; environmental workforce dynamics; environmental and public health; energy transitions; agricultural change; food security; forest governance; hazard exposure; community revitalization; conservation and access to natural areas; as well as conflict mediation, management of non-governmental organizations, advocacy campaigns, public opinion, and more.

(Source: *directly quoted* https://seas.umich.edu/academics/master-science/environmental-justice/history-environmental-justice)

17 Principles of Environmental Justice

  1. Environmental Justice affirms the sacredness of Mother Earth, ecological unity and the interdependence of all species, and the right to be free from ecological destruction. 
  2. Environmental Justice demands that public policy be based on mutual respect and justice for all peoples, free from any form of discrimination or bias. 
  3. Environmental Justice mandates the right to ethical, balanced and responsible uses of land and renewable resources in the interest of a sustainable planet for humans and other living things. 
  4. Environmental Justice calls for universal protection from nuclear testing, extraction, production and disposal of toxic/hazardous wastes and poisons and nuclear testing that threaten the fundamental right to clean air, land, water, and food. 
  5. Environmental Justice affirms the fundamental right to political, economic, cultural and environmental self-determination of all peoples. 
  6. Environmental Justice demands the cessation of the production of all toxins, hazardous wastes, and radioactive materials, and that all past and current producers be held strictly accountable to the people for detoxification and the containment at the point of production. 
  7. Environmental Justice demands the right to participate as equal partners at every level of decision-making, including needs assessment, planning, implementation, enforcement and evaluation. 
  8. Environmental Justice affirms the right of all workers to a safe and healthy work environment without being forced to choose between an unsafe livelihood and unemployment. It also affirms the right of those who work at home to be free from environmental hazards. 
  9. Environmental Justice protects the right of victims of environmental injustice to receive full compensation and reparations for damages as well as quality health care. 
  10. Environmental Justice considers governmental acts of environmental injustice a violation of international law, the Universal Declaration On Human Rights, and the United Nations Convention on Genocide. 
  11. Environmental Justice must recognize a special legal and natural relationship of Native Peoples to the U.S. government through treaties, agreements, compacts, and covenants affirming sovereignty and self-determination. 
  12. Environmental Justice affirms the need for urban and rural ecological policies to clean up and rebuild our cities and rural areas in balance with nature, honoring the cultural integrity of all our communities, and provided fair access for all to the full range of resources. 
  13. Environmental Justice calls for the strict enforcement of principles of informed consent, and a halt to the testing of experimental reproductive and medical procedures and vaccinations on people of color. 
  14. Environmental Justice opposes the destructive operations of multi-national corporations. 
  15. Environmental Justice opposes military occupation, repression and exploitation of lands, peoples and cultures, and other life forms. 
  16. Environmental Justice calls for the education of present and future generations which emphasizes social and environmental issues, based on our experience and an appreciation of our diverse cultural perspectives. 
  17. Environmental Justice requires that we, as individuals, make personal and consumer choices to consume as little of Mother Earth's resources and to produce as little waste as possible; and make the conscious decision to challenge and reprioritize our lifestyles to insure the health of the natural world for present and future generations. (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.reimaginerpe.org/ejprinciples

Dr. Mohai

Professor Mohai’s teaching and research interests are focused on environmental justice, public opinion and the environment, and influences on environmental policy making.  He is a founder of the Environmental Justice Program at the University of Michigan and a major contributor to the growing body of quantitative research examining disproportionate environmental burdens and their impacts on low income and people of color communities.  In 1990, he co-organized with Dr. Bunyan Bryant the “Michigan Conference on Race and the Incidence of Environmental Hazards”, which was credited by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as one of two events bringing the issue of Environmental Justice to the attention of the Agency.  He is author or co-author of numerous articles, books, and reports focused on race and the environment, including “Environmental Racism: Reviewing the Evidence,” “Race and the Incidence of Environmental Hazards,” “Toxic Waste and Race at Twenty,” and “Which Came First, People or Pollution?”  His current research involves national level studies examining the causes of environmental disparities and the role environmental factors play in accounting for racial and socioeconomic disparities in health.  Through a grant from the Kresge Foundation, he is also examining pollution burdens around public schools and the links between such burdens and student performance and health.

Professor Mohai is a past member of the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC) to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (2007-2013).  He is currently a member of the Governor’s Environmental Justice Work Group charged with developing an Environmental Justice Plan for Michigan.  He is also currently a member of the Advisory Board of the Global Environmental Justice Movement Project (ENVJUSTICE) which is documenting and mapping environmental justice conflicts around the world (http://www.envjustice.org/).  Professor Mohai has provided testimony on environmental justice to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1993 and 1999, the U.S. Senate in 2007, and the Michigan Civil Rights Commission in 2016. (Source: *directly quoted* https://seas.umich.edu/research/faculty/paul-mohai)

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at 734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu