WHEN several hundred ``Green'' activists gathered in Colorado recently to talk about environmental issues, there were just two black persons in attendance. Earlier in the year, the Earth Day celebration in the United States capital saw thousands take part. Yet the crowd was largely white, even though African-Americans make up more than two-thirds of the population of Washington. The problem is elitism and inadequate communications between the major environmental groups and persons of color. And it's not putting it too strongly to say the issue is a matter of life and death for many nonwhites.
US industries belch 2.4 billion pounds of toxic chemicals into the air every year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and one can safely assume that minorities are affected out of proportion to their numbers. Carla Atkinson of Public Citizen (a research and lobbying group started by Ralph Nader) points to a 1987 study by the United Church of Christ, which found that 60 percent of black and Hispanic Americans live in areas with at least one uncontrolled toxic-waste site. In some largely Chicano farm communities where pesticides are used, the rates of childhood cancer have been several times the average. Many Navajo miners, harmed by the mining of uranium in the Southwest from the 1940s through the 1970s, are among those just now receiving compensation from the federal government.
``As a result of increasing air pollution, Afro-American boys living in center cities are dying of asthma at three times the rate of white youngsters,'' writes Paul Ruffins, senior editor of Black Networking News, in the quarterly journal In Context. ``Yet over the past decade, most mainstream environmental groups have dedicated far more time and energy to publicizing the plight of dolphins and whales.''
Some regulations pushed by environmental groups - welcome as they are - have had the unintended effect of adversely affecting people of color. EPA-approved toxic waste dumps often are located in poorer black areas of the South. And in some cases, such waste is shipped to third-world countries to avoid the stringencies of US law.
It's not simply a matter of unconscious racism by mainstream environmental groups, however, although their memberships are overwhelmingly white and upper class (and their professional staffs are less than 2 percent nonwhite). Ruffin points out that ``civil rights groups such as the NAACP have sometimes taken very irresponsible positions on the environment.'' And as with third-world countries, the economics of poverty sometimes takes precedence over cleaning up the environment - even the local environment.
It's hard to get worked up over acid rain, or the greenhouse effect, or the Brazilian rain forests, or spotted owls if you're simply trying to make ends meet. And if shutting down local smokestacks means unemployment, it's understandable if jobs win out.
Yet there are examples of grass-roots environmentalists in predominately nonwhite communities organizing effectively to fight polluters. Mothers of East Los Angeles (MELA) helped halt - temporarily, at least - construction of the $29 million Vernon incinerator, which would burn 125,000 pounds of toxic wastes every day less than 4 miles from downtown L.A. Through marches and other pressure tactics, the largely black Gulf Coast Tenants' Organization persuaded lawmakers to reduce poisonous pollution along the ``Petrochemical Corridor'' between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, La., where 20 percent of all US petrochemicals are produced.
In recent months, minority groups have been demanding that large environmental organizations like the Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club hire more minorities if they want to keep operating and fund-raising in their communities. The organizations have been responding with affirmative action in jobs and internships, and that is as it should be.
But the issue is not just one of jobs and organizational power.
Mainstream environmental organizations with multimillion-dollar budgets can and should do more to support grass-roots efforts in minority areas, especially urban areas. They need to prove they understand that the health and safety of children there is just as important as the survival of an endangered plant or animal. When they do, then the breakthrough to ``thinking globally, acting locally'' in minority communities can be made as well. And the Green movement will take on a more mixed hue.