OVER the years, it's become clear that pollution and the depletion of natural resources - environmental degradation of all kinds - know no political or economic bounds. That's one impetus to the "Earth Summit" in Rio de Janeiro next month, where leaders from developed and developing countries hope to make progress on issues like climate change and the loss of biodiversity.
But it's also becoming clearer that minority and indigenous people around the world most often bear the brunt of such degradation. Whether it's African-Americans living along a strip of oil refineries and petrochemical plants between Baton Rouge, La., and New Orleans, known as "cancer alley," or Penan tribal people barricading logging roads on the Malaysian island of Borneo, race and relative political power play an important role.
Several years ago, the Rev. Benjamin Chavis, executive director of the United Church of Christ's Commission for Racial Justice, began calling this "environmental racism." In recent congressional testimony, for example, Mr. Chavis cited evidence that urban black and Hispanic children are twice as likely to be exposed to dangerous levels of lead than are white children. The church commission also found that 60 percent of blacks and Hispanics in the United States live near hazardous-waste sites.
Similarly, researchers at the University of Michigan reported at a symposium on environment and race earlier this year that minority people in and around Detroit are much more likely than whites to live within a mile of hazardous waste. Similar studies report the same in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.
"It's not a poverty thing, it's not a class thing," says University of California sociologist Robert Bullard in the current issue of "E" (for environment) magazine. "It is racism, pure and simple." Dr. Bullard (author of "Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class and Environmental Quality") notes that all the landfills and most of the incinerators in Houston are located in predominantly black neighborhoods.
Native Americans in the United States face the same kinds of problems. Tribal leaders gathered recently in Washington, D.C., to complain of an "environmental assault" in the Great Lakes region, where Indian communities rely on fish and wildlife. Among the problems cited were paper-mill waste near the Oneida tribe of Green Bay, Wis., and pollution from an aluminum smelter affecting the Mohawk tribe near the New York-Quebec border.
Last October, some 600 men and women met for the "First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit" in Washington, D.C. Whether in response or coincidentally, the Environmental Protection Agency four months later released a draft report promising to "increase the priority that [EPA] gives to environmental equity."
Despite the evidence gathered by the United Church of Christ, university researchers, Indian tribes, and civil-rights groups, the EPA at this point concedes no pattern between race and pollution - except for lead poisoning.
But in an internal EPA memo released by Rep. Henry Waxman (D) of California, who chairs the health and environment subcommittee of the House of Representatives, one senior EPA official said, "The record shows quite clearly that EPA has not understood the issue at all until very recently."
At the University of Michigan conference, Robert Wolcott of the EPA, who is heading the agency's assessment of environmental risk in minority communities, acknowledged that there is a problem. "I don't know that it's so grossly racist," he was quoted as saying. "But it's definitely race- and poverty-oriented."
But in his book "Dumping in Dixie," Professor Bullard says housing discrimination and other forms of bias "have contributed to the imposition of all types of toxins on black communities." He notes that polluting industries "have generally followed the path of least resistance," which means toward the "economically poor and politically powerless." And he adds that because of housing bias and lack of political clout, middle-class blacks often find it difficult to escape environmental dangers despite their relatively greater wealth.
Whether this amounts to "gross racism" is less important than the need to stop it.