Equity goes way beyond law enforcement

September 18, 2020 12:01 am

Richard Walker and other opponents of a proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline compressor station in Buckingham County protested at a State Air Pollution Control Board meeting in December, 2018, by standing and turning their backs during a Department of Environmental Quality presentation. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury – Dec. 19, 2018)

Protests this summer nationwide – including here in Virginia – have correctly focused on police brutality against Black and Brown people and the quest for humane treatment. Most interactions with officers, especially for minor crimes, shouldn’t end in death.

Another issue dealing with racial inequity doesn’t involve law enforcement, but it still reveals the disparate effects that people of color must face. 

“Environmental justice” doesn’t generate the same type of headlines. Yet the spectrum of incidents under this heading affects the day-to-day living conditions of many non-Whites, many of whom are poor. 

Two recent news reports around the commonwealth highlight the issue. 

The Virginian-Pilot noted the ongoing redevelopment of several public housing communities in Norfolk. The overhaul of the 1950s-era homes now includes a $14.4 million federal grant to reconnect those neighborhoods to more pedestrian-friendly city roadways. The three communities are “surrounded by busy roads and largely cut off from city cross streets,” The Pilot reported. 

Many of the streets are narrow and one-way, making them difficult to navigate. (Full disclosure: I’m a parishioner of a church that sits in one of the housing communities.)

 “The design is a remnant of racist housing policies,” the newspaper said, “that aimed to keep poor and Black residents stuck in their own neighborhoods.” The not-so-subtle message: Stay in your place.

Roughly 4,200 people live in the three developments. And the irony is thick: Now that many poor, Black residents will soon be dispersed, local authorities will realign the streets to make them more hospitable to the people who move in – presumably Whiter and wealthier.

The second published piece is an op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch about a proposed mega-landfill in Cumberland County. Robert Gurley, the writer, is African-American and president of the Frederick Douglass Foundation Virginia Chapter, a public policy and educational organization. 

Gurley said the Green Ridge Recycling and Disposal Facility would rise up across from one of the historic “Rosenwald Schools,” built in the early 1900s to educate Black children. 

The small county, whose population today is just over 9,900, also is 30.5 percent Black, according to census estimates. That percentage is higher than the Black population statewide, at 20 percent. 

“In this country,” Gurley wrote, “race is already the single biggest indicator of whether you live near pollution.” 

I’d add that income levels also play a huge factor. But I get Gurley’s point. 

The Virginia Mercury has reported about the machinations surrounding the landfill, including the fact the county’s Board of Supervisors approved the original proposal a scant 35 days after it became public. A state Department of Environmental Quality spokesman told me the state has 91 “sanitary” landfills already. 

The news in Norfolk and Cumberland is infuriating – though unsurprising. 

Repeatedly in this country, incinerators, landfills, jails and other undesirable facilities end up in neighborhoods that are non-White and poorer than others. The people who live there are usually voiceless at the local and state levels. 

Or municipal planners build freeways in places that destroy long-established Black communities, claiming the removal is for the good of the entire city.

I don’t have to look far for examples:

A Norfolk activist complained to me that his predominantly Black neighborhood was targeted by the siting of numerous social service agencies. The rest of the city wasn’t doing its fair share, he said.

 Interstate 464’s completion in the 1980s in Chesapeake cut off the largely African-American South Hill neighborhood from its surroundings. Something similar happened to the African-American neighborhood of Jackson Ward in Richmond a half-century ago. The construction of Interstate 95 and the Richmond Coliseum laid waste to that community.”

• A lengthy article in The New York Times this year described how formerly redlined neighborhoods, including those in Richmond, are among the hottest parts of town each summer because of few trees and plenty of pavement. Such neighborhoods earned the redlined designations in the 20th century because they were mostly Black, thus depriving the areas of federally backed mortgages and other types of credit.

As the Virginia Mercury reported last year, Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration has focused on environmental justice, decades after the mantra first gained traction. The fight over the effects of the proposed 600-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline on the freedmen’s community of Union Hill was among the catalysts. 

An environmental justice advocate had called the project “almost a symbol of racism.”

In July, Dominion Energy and Duke Energy decided to kill the project after years of planning and billions of dollars.

Discussions about the location of these industrial facilities and the destruction of long-established neighborhoods are more than just nettlesome. They speak to the type of nation we all deserve; equity; and whether local officials decide to treat all of their residents fairly.  

The child who grows up next to a garbage landfill confronts a far different reality – and self-worth – than one who grows up next to a Fortune 500 company’s headquarters. Race and class shouldn’t dictate who gets dumped on.

Too often, it still does.

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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]