From equal access to environmental justice

The NAACP's plan to sue the lead-paint industry is one example of civil rights shift.

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The civil rights movement is a long way from the days of lunch-counter sit-ins and bus boycotts in the 1950s and 60s. No longer is the country torn apart over allowing African-Americans to drink from "white" water fountains and swim in community pools.

Today's fights for equality are more subtle - like where to site incinerators, racial disparities in prisons, or who is affected by toxic paint in their homes.

This week, at its national conference in New Orleans, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People announced plans to sue the lead-paint industry. Calling exposure to lead-based paint a "civil rights issue," NAACP President Kweisi Mfume stressed the importance of equal access to a safe environment.

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While Mr. Mfume acknowledged that the toxic paint is not just a black problem but "is everywhere these houses [with lead-based paint] exist," the reality is that low-income and African-American children are far more likely than others to live in such a home.

The NAACP's involvement in the lead-paint fight is a striking example of how the civil rights agenda has evolved. After the struggle for desegregation, the movement turned its attention toward economic equality. Now, activists are joining the fight for environmental justice.

"The original civil rights movement was about the right to sit at a lunch counter and order a hamburger. In the '70s and '80s, it was about being able to afford to buy that hamburger. And now, it's about not dying from the stuff that's in the hamburger," says Christian Warren, a history professor at the University of Georgia in Athens who recently finished a book entitled "Brush with Death: A Social History of Lead Poisoning."

Lead-based paint was used widely in American homes until the federal government finally banned it in 1978. The industry adamantly denies that it had any knowledge of the risks associated with the metal, but activists claim paint manufacturers knew as early as the 1930s that it posed serious health risks.

Who is exposed?

Today, some 40 percent of homes still have some lead-based paint in them. But low-income children are eight times more likely to live in older homes and apartments where lead paint causes a problem, and African-American children are five times more likely than Anglo children to suffer from lead poisoning (caused by inhaling paint flakes and dust), according to the Center for Disease Control.

The fight over lead paint is not new. Middle-class white groups have been fighting these kinds of environmental issues for years. But African-Americans needed to gain social equality and economic stability before they could begin to tackle more subtle issues such as environmental and criminal justice, experts say.

Economic changes first

"That's why these kind of issues resonate with blacks today so much more than they did 10, 15, 20 years ago," says Jack Davis, a civil and environmental-rights historian at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. "As wealth among African-Americans grows and more and more of them move into the middle class, they can afford to pay attention to these sorts of issues."

Last year, the federal government made it a goal to eradicate the lead-paint problem by 2010. But the Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that it would cost $500 billion to remove lead paint from the 38 million homes currently affected. So the real question is, who will pay for the extensive work: taxpayers, property owners, or the paint manufacturers?

The fight over lead paint has been tried on many levels and with limited success. The most recent tactics are similar to the latest tobacco litigation.

Many municipal or state governments have filed lawsuits against the manufacturers claiming that the malfeasance is forcing them to pay large amounts of money to restore contaminated homes and educate children with special education needs. Some lawsuits are moving through the courts, others have been thrown out.

But calling it a civil rights issue takes the battle a step further and onto different legal ground. Advocates see the NAACP's interest in lead-paint lawsuits as quite encouraging.

"It's tremendously important for them to get involved," says Don Ryan, executive director of the Alliance to End Childhood Lead Poisoning in Washington. "It's a reminder that low income and African-American children are at many, many times a greater risk."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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