Why Black People Should Care About Earth Day

Today people across the globe celebrate Earth Day, a day in which we reflect on the environment and talk about ways that we can help keep our planet healthy. In 1970, Gaylord Nelson, a Wisconsin senator, created Earth Day after being inspired by the anti-war protests of the 1960s. The environmental movement was very much grassroots with people attending teach-ins about how to keep our water and air clean. It was also very political in its demands for creating policy that would protect the environment.

Historically, Black leaders such as Mary Lou Oates and Freddie Mae Brown, inserted themselves in the environmental movement. The two women, who fought against poverty in the 1960s and 1970s, inserted themselves into the environmental movement to ensure that white liberals were looking at clean air and water for everybody and not just white neighborhoods. They worked hand in hand with prominent political leaders to fight for justice in Black communities. Environmentalism is just as revolutionary and political today as it was then, and it’s important that we fight for environmental justice and against eco-racism just as hard as leaders did during decades past.

Too often, African American communities are built in areas where there is environmental pollution. As an example, in Chicago Illinois’ Altgeld Gardens, a community on the city’s South Side, was built on an abandoned landfill in 1945. People living here, according to a study done in 1984, had excessive rates of lung cancer, prostate, and bladder cancer, along with high rates of children born with brain tumors, asthma, and ringworms. Despite being in the middle of what the EPA has labeled a “toxic donut,” nothing has been done to move the residents of Altgeld Gardens.

Instances such as this are happening across the nation. In Louisiana, there is a place called Cancer Alley, between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, where one-quarter of the United States petrochemicals are manufactured. Black residents of Cancer Alley are suffering due to lack of political influence to spur regulation that would end pollution. The only way to end environmental injustice is to raise awareness and fight against policies that allow our communities to face undue suffering due to pollution and chemical waste. There are too many stories similar to those about Altgeld Gardens and Cancer Alley, Louisiana, where toxic environments are affecting African Americans across the entire country.

For Earth Day, it’s important that we raise an awareness not only about the health of the planet, but also for resources and policies that are beneficial to our communities. We need to fight for more garbage cans and recycling bins in our neighborhoods, where all too often, trash piles up in exorbitant amounts, and once installed, we need to use them.

Next, we should rally against policies that allow politicians to place waste and toxic chemicals into our neighborhoods. When we see something wrong environmentally, we should say something, and we should not stop organizing until environmental laws are created to keep our families safe from toxic environments because we deserve better, and so does our planet. Taking care of earth is in and of itself taking care of our livelihoods, and a change will not come without a fight. President Obama helped lead the charge to try and clean up Altgeld Gardens before becoming president, and it’s time for us to pick up that torch and fight to improve conditions in impoverished neighborhoods across the U.S.

Fighting for food justice is another way in which the struggle to help the environment goes hand in hand with our political struggle. We must fight for access to healthy, locally sourced, whole foods. Community organic gardens are the first step in helping members of our communities make better food choices. They also help fight against harmful chemicals and factory farms that ravish the planet during industrial food production processes. Additives and GMOs, found in our food need to be stopped. The only way to do that outside of community gardens is to ensure our neighborhoods have grocery store options where people can buy whole and organic foods.

Historically, our leaders have fought to have a voice in environmental issues that affect our communities and on Earth Day, we should remember to continue that habit. What good is a healthy planet, if we remain in unhealthy neighborhoods that are making us sick?