In the weeks since Gov. Ralph Northam was condemned for the racist activities he engaged in in the past, I’ve not been happy, nor comfortable.
I’ve struggled to find the way to say what I need to say without alienating the people I want to work with.
I’ve walked a rhetorical high wire, trying to filter my thoughts and filter my message, while still keeping faith with the underrepresented voices in communities I vowed to represent.
In the immediate aftermath of the governor’s yearbook crisis, I was among the many voices calling for the governor’s resignation. I have not changed my mind and neither has the governor. Instead, the governor stated that he’d like to spend the remainder of his time in office focusing on race and equity.
When the governor addressed this week’s Environment Virginia Symposium in Lexington, I’d hoped he would articulate some concrete solutions regarding race, equity and the environment, or at least talk through some of the prominent environmental justice issues currently affecting citizens in the Commonwealth.
Unfortunately, he decided not to do either of those things.
And so, I have a few things I’d like to say.
Divided by design
It’s time, in Virginia, for an honest conversation about power and equity, about the structures of power and the racial inequities and environmental injustices that result from those structures. Because, whether it is in the environmental movement or in everyday life, if you are a black person living in America, every time you think we’ve made progress you realize we haven’t. Every time you take a step forward you keep getting pulled back.
Just when you can begin to envision living the American dream, the painful image of a man donning a white cloak and hood haunts you like your worst nightmare.
I was born in Dallas, Texas, and grew up in Waterloo, Iowa, a town of about 67,000 people. I was adopted by my grandparents. My grandfather passed away when I was six years old, leaving me with my grandmother for the remainder of my childhood.
At various times throughout my childhood, my grandmother also raised a rotating cast of my cousins and did so on an annual income of around $18,000. There’s an old joke that was told when I was growing up that was certainly appropriate for my situation: “We weren’t poor. We was PO. P-O. We couldn’t afford all four letters. All we could afford was two.”
My grandparents were born and raised on the east side of Waterloo, and that’s where I also grew up. Back around 1950, shortly after my grandfather returned from service in World War II, my grandparents wanted to purchase a new home on the west side of Waterloo. They were told “no,” because they were black. Indeed, even by the late 1960s, 95 percent of black residents in Waterloo lived on the East side.
Waterloo was, and remains, a town divided by race on purpose. It is literally divided into “East” and “West” Waterloo by the Cedar River that runs down the middle. There are two public high schools in Waterloo, “East High” and “West High.” There are two hospitals in Waterloo. Allen Memorial Hospital on the east side, and Covenant Medical Center on the west side.
It is a town divided by design, not by the choices of the people who live there, not based on the individual circumstances of the people who live there and not by accident.
But growing up, even as a young child, I could see with my own eyes the stark economic, environmental, and racial disparities that can separate communities even within a few short miles of each other.
As part of the New Deal, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created a suite of new programs designed to help more Americans buy homes, afford their homes and be one step closer to living the American dream. But it’s 1933. Racism is rampant. So, it should come as no surprise to hear that those programs were not fairly or equally distributed.
One government entity, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, was created to help Americans finance their new homes. The HOLC created maps of cities all across America and color-coded these maps to align with the different rules that would be applied to people who lived in each section.
Here is a map from the city of Norfolk. Green meant “desirable.” The best. This was the ideal American neighborhood. Blue meant “good”. Most families in the blue territory had white-collar jobs. Yellow meant “definitely declining.” Many families in yellow areas were working-class types; many low-to-moderate income families.
Red meant “hazardous,” or “Warning: Do not approve loans to people in these areas and if you do, jack the rates up. These are undesirable locations. No one wants to live next to these people and the people who are in the red areas won’t pay you back anyway.”
The primary characteristic of “red-lined” communities? Black people. One example from the city of Tacoma, Wash., underscores this point. One community in Tacoma was deemed a “red community.” But there was a footnote in the HOLC manual. And it reads, “This might be classed as a ‘low yellow’ area if not for the presence of the number of Negroes and low-class foreign families who reside in the area.”
In the 1930s, Newport News cracked the top 10 as one of the most redlined-cities in America, with more than 57 percent of the city deemed “hazardous.”
Last year, 50 years after Congress passed the Fair Housing Act and banned these discriminatory practices, a massive study was released by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, which researched how redlined communities have or have not changed over the years. It found that two-thirds of the neighborhoods redlined 50 to 80 years ago are majority-minority communities today, and 74 percent of redlined communities remain low and moderate income to this day.
Conversely, 85 percent of “green” communities 50 to 80 years ago are majority-white today, and 91 percent of these communities are middle-to-upper income communities today.
Treated as ‘less than’ for generations
We have heard that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. After more than 80 years in housing, we have not yet reached the turning point of that arc. But the painful legacy of discrimination in our communities goes far beyond the purchase of a home, it affects every aspect of our lives.
For most Americans, your home is your most valuable asset. In the early-to-mid 1900s many black families were prohibited from buying a home in the location of their choice or denied access to make a home purchase at all. Many black families lived in rental housing in segregated communities while white families moved to the suburbs, bought homes and reaped the economic benefits of home ownership and passed the wealth down from generation to generation. Today, black Americans have only five percent of the total wealth of white Americans. In fact, black families with college degrees have less wealth today on average than white families who never finished high school.
The value of the home determines how much families pay in property taxes. Property taxes are a significant funding mechanism of public schools in communities. In a new report published just this year, nationally, predominantly white school districts receive $23 billion more in funding than majority-minority school districts. The per-student funding gap is even more troubling. The report states, “For every student enrolled, the average non-white school district receives $2,226 less than a white school district.”
Whenever I discuss environmental justice, I often tell people, and even have to remind my friends within the environmental community, that the inequities we see in the environment are but one of many stressors black people endure and live with every day of their lives. But these stressors of housing, wealth, education and environmental inequities are inextricably bound to one another. The arc on the journey towards justice is long for each of these movements. And they face one common obstacle — the lack of power.
You have communities divided by race, intentionally. Black and brown families live in poorer and substandard homes. The school systems in black and brown communities are underfunded and rundown. The land in these communities are undervalued.
So when your built environment treats you as “less than,” it is inevitable that companies, and government, move to locate dirty power facilities, toxic waste sites and dangerous infrastructure projects to these areas.
Powerful entities have less regard for the lives of black people, the lives of brown people, the lives of poor people and the lives of those who are less educated, because these people lack political power and the majority in society has been treating minorities in society as “less than” for generations without much consequence. So why stop now?
Studies by the NAACP and others cite that around two-thirds of black people in America live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant, notably higher than white populations, exposing adults and children to harmful air pollutants. EPA estimates that at least 1.5 million minorities live dangerously close to coal ash surface impoundments, where they are at risk to leaks and spills, threatening their water supplies. According to analysis conducted by the EPA and HUD, 70 percent of the country’s contaminated waste sites — or Superfund Sites — are located near low-income housing.
In my hometown of Waterloo, Iowa — on the East Side — EPA recently found that an old manufacturing plant called Chamberlain was responsible for heavy metals pollution and a carcinogen known as TCE, which threatened the drinking water and soil under the homes south and west of the now-closed factory. EPA said that the pollution is too deep and too old to ever clean up.
My grandmother’s home was located a little over one mile south and west of that factory and she passed away from cancer four years ago.
I cannot prove cause and effect and quite honestly, I do not care.
This is environmental racism. These are deliberate acts either intentionally targeting or, equally problematic, disproportionately impacting communities based on race. That’s racism. I’m sorry if you are uncomfortable hearing the term racism but imagine being on the receiving end of it. When people ask, what do you mean by environmental injustice — this is what we’re talking about. When people wonder, what is environmental racism — this is what it looks like.
And when people say, I don’t understand — this is how we make it clear.
Start with Union Hill
Black and brown communities have been bullied in housing discrimination, in educational equality, in economic advancement and today they’re being evicted from their homes at higher rates, their babies are dying at birth at higher rates, unarmed black men are being shot — on camera — by police who are supposed to preserve and protect them. And after carrying these frustrations, after shouldering these burdens every single day, year after year, maybe, just maybe now you will understand why a resident of Union Hill might stomp their feet and yell “No, no, no. We don’t want your stupid compressor station.”
Thanks, but no thanks for that community center. You can take your community center and shove it. How much more do you want us to bear?”
We all understand this is a complicated and sensitive issue. Dominion has said it wants to be a good neighbor. It’s offered to invest in the community. It’s not for me to question Dominion’s sincerity or pass judgment on questions best resolved through direct dialogue with the people of Buckingham County.
As an advocate of environmental justice, though, I am deeply offended by Dominion’s offer to give a few million dollars to the area in exchange for the permission to place a compressor station in the community.
The definition of justice is to right the wrong that you’ve caused— or better yet not cause the wrong in the first place. Martin Luther King Jr. said people often asked civil rights leaders, “When will you be satisfied?” We’ve given you your own drinking fountains. When will you be satisfied? We’ve even upgraded a few community services. Why are you not satisfied?
Here in Virginia today, we are not satisfied with a few million dollars in exchange for the health of our children, in exchange for the safety of our family and friends, in exchange for our dignity, our respect and our peace of mind. As long as racism exists, as long as injustices linger — as Dr. King famously said — “No we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
And we are not satisfied with a governor who ignores the cries of residents in Buckingham and replaces board members who may be sympathetic to their cries. And we will never be satisfied with a governor who maintains his unwavering support of this unjust, racist project.
We have a governor who still believes that he’s the best person to lead this state out of its current racial divisions even though he’s the one who caused them. Setting aside the maddening level of arrogance for a moment, Gov. Northam, if you want to help right a wrong, you can start with Union Hill, reverse your position and demand that Dominion move its compressor station. Help deliver justice to people who need it.
We cannot begin to resolve the inequities in our environment at-large if we don’t tackle the underlying racial disparities that exist in our communities, in housing, in employment and within our political structures. There’s an old saying:, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
Let’s continue our work to clean up our environment with that renewed focus on communities that need it most.
Editor’s note: This piece is adapted from a speech Mr. Robinson delivered Thursday at the Virginia Environment Symposium in Lexington. It has been edited for length.
Views of opinion contributors are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Virginia Mercury.