Mixing A Few More Colors Into The Green

We must correct racial imbalances in environmental groups
if we are to build a truly "green" coalition

One of the articles in Sustainability (IC#25)
Originally published in Late Spring 1990 on page 33
Copyright (c)1990, 1997 by Context Institute

The environmental and sustainability movements may be distinct, but they’re very closely related – and virtually indistinguishable in terms of ethnic diversity. In a nutshell, they lack it. Ecological concerns were until very recently a social luxury that only middle-class whites could easily afford. Those of other origins needed to spend their energy on basic concerns like achieving political equality and economic fairness.

They still need to, but the environment has now also become a basic concern that clearly affects the lives of everyone, regardless of color. How do we build bridges – which we need now more than ever? Paul Ruffins, a senior editor of Washington DC’s Black Networking News, offers these suggestions.

Just as the environmental movement has begun to see its message widely disseminated around the world, it has come under increasing criticism right here at home.

Since the beginning of 1990, most if not all of the largest environmental organizations – including the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society and others – have received two different documents accusing them of being racist. The first letter, from the Gulf Coast Tenant Leadership Development Project, was signed by three well-respected black civil rights leaders and several environmental activists. Among other things, it stated that "Racism and the whiteness of the environmental movement are our Achilles heel." In addition, the letter requested that "every environmental organization, yours included, cease operations in communities of color within sixty days, until you have hired leaders from those communities to the extent that they make up 35-40 percent of your entire staff." Finally, it requested that the recipients provide them with the names, salaries and job classifications of all their staffers of non-European origin.

The second letter, from the SouthWest Organizing Project (a predominantly Native American and Hispanic group) was similar in tone and repeated the same request that environmental organizations stop operating and fundraising in minority communities. These documents have generated a great deal of soul-searching in the environmental movement. Long-accustomed to seeing themselves as the voice of a more enlightened morality, most environmentalists are simply not accustomed to being the target of the kind of confrontational rhetoric usually hurled at Japanese whaling fleets.

These accusations present the movement with a very serious ethical crisis. Businessmen have long accused ecologists of being elites determined to impose their priorities even if it means leaving thousands of loggers, coal miners, and autoworkers unemployed. It has been easy to dismiss these charges as self-serving corporate propaganda. But when confronted by other grass-roots social justice activists, it is a lot harder to know how to respond.

I am a black environmentalist who believes that it is elitist and, to a certain extent, racist for white environmentalists who represent a small section of the population to claim that they speak for the good of the whole planet. However, I do not believe that the environmental movement’s response to these charges of racism should be to immediately stop its operations in communities of color, or lapse into a 1960s-style liberal guilt-trip. The movement’s first task should be to examine itself. The truth is that environmental organizations are some of the least culturally diverse institutions in the country. According to the CEIP Fund’s recently completed Minority Opportunity Study, minorities have been virtually locked out of environmental careers. In 1988, an informal survey of eleven nonprofit environmental organizations found only six minority persons serving on the boards, and concluded that minority men and women made up only 1.8% of their professional staffs.

The movement must also face up to the fact that some parts of its agenda have had some very negative impacts on Black, Hispanic, and indigenous communities in the U.S. and overseas. An unintended but direct result of some of the regulations advocated by environmentalists had been to shift the burden of toxic wastes onto the non-white poor. In the last two decades since Earth Day 1970, our society did not produce less toxic wastes, but it did demand safer disposal of its wastes. The end result was actually to move wastes from richer to poorer. The creation of new EPA-approved dump sites has primarily been in poor Black areas of the deep south. And the tightening of environmental regulations in the U.S. and Europe has changed the economics of disposal so that it’s now profitable to export hazardous waste thousands of miles to poor nations in Africa and other parts of the Third World.

Now perhaps it’s unfair to hold environmentalists more responsible than polluters when it comes to transferring toxics to minority areas. But it is perfectly fair to hold environmentalists responsible for consistently defining environmental priorities in ways that are largely irrelevant to the needs of most non-white people in the U.S. Here’s just one example: 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. Yet over the last decade, most mainstream environmental groups have dedicated far more time and energy to publicizing the plight of dolphins and whales.

The bottom line is that the environmental movement must embrace non-white people and their priorities and perspectives if is to have any hope of saving the planet. And, if it can’t do it in the United States, it has little hope of succeeding in the rest of the world where it is whites who are the minority. This is no small challenge. Many other equally powerful social movements, such as women’s liberation and organized labor, have been splintered by their inability to deal with the issue of race.

Fortunately, in the 1990s both white and minority environmentalists have had the chance to learn from other movements’ mixed successes in dealing with this issue in the decades since the civil rights movement. I think that the first lesson should be to use an ecological as well as an integrationist approach to including everyone in the movement. In practical terms, this means that environmental organizations must do more than just find creative ways to include people of color within their ranks. An ecological approach also recognizes the need to preserve and encourage diversity. Therefore it also requires supporting the growth of Black, Hispanic and other minority-led environmental groups which have their own independent niches in the social and political systems of their communities.


I believe that most mainstream environmental groups have begun to make sincere efforts to recruit more nonwhite staffers into professional and managerial positions. There has also been a concerted push to increase the number of minority students receiving fellowships and summer internships. However, as many other organizations have learned, retaining these men and women and making them feel welcome requires a real commitment from the organization’s leadership.

This is not going to be easy. Making a significant change in the ethnic makeup of an organization inevitably results in altering its group dynamics and work culture, which almost always produces some degree of tension or alienation. Perhaps environmental groups should encourage their employees to join progressive unions to encourage workplace democracy and ensure that all employees have access to structured ways of resolving conflicts. It may also be a good idea to consider retaining a minority management consultant or organizational psychologist to help facilitate the process. To succeed, people within the organization must understand that this effort is neither a luxury nor affirmative action for its own sake. It is a political, moral, and strategic necessity. There have already been numerous cases of industry groups using minority spokespersons to argue that regulations and initiatives proposed by white environmentalists discriminate against minorities and the poor. This tactic will continue to succeed as long as these organizations remain so white and upper-middle class in their membership and outlook.


At the same time that they are welcoming people of color into their own organizations, environmental groups who have amassed large amounts of money and resources must also commit themselves to supporting the growth of minority environmental groups. This is not promoting segregation, but rather realizing that people who have a history of oppression have a legitimate need to control their own institutions. It is also a way to empower minority environmentalists so that they can be able to confront members of their own communities on environmental issues without being accused of merely being the tools of outside interests.

There are many men and women of color who are more than willing to take on the job of organizing their brothers and sisters. The challenge is to identify them and to devise some workable way to help provide them with the financial and management resources they need to develop groups that will last. This support can come in the form of direct grants, or by offering to train minority men and women in fundraising and public relations. Other options include giving these groups access to mailing lists, office space and computer equipment, or offering them free advertising space in environmental newsletters and magazines.

Those environmental organizations who have philosophical or political problems with supporting independent minority organizations should at least consider starting branches affiliated with black colleges and universities or other community groups.


Minority environmentalists also bear an equal responsibility for making sure the environmental movement becomes truly universal. We must try to harness our anger at this society. Outrage is best when used judiciously and directed at one’s true adversaries. We too must learn the lessons of recent history. The chance for real coalition building comes along very rarely. If the environmental mainstream comes forth with genuine goodwill, that is a resource that we can not afford to squander, because it is our people who are at the greatest risk from environmental hazards.

Those of us who want to take on the professional and social challenge of struggling to succeed in white organizations should go into it understanding that it will be tough, and cultivate a sense of humor. We should consult the growing body of literature on how other minority professionals manage the stress of working in white organizations without becoming bitter or burned out.

We must also realize that civil rights organizations such as the NAACP have sometimes taken very irresponsible positions on the environment. Therefore we must gather up our courage and become much more willing to confront and criticize black organizations and politicians. And, though it might seem paradoxical, this often means becoming more active in these organizations. After all, since minority leaders and organizations are constantly being criticized by outsiders, we must retain our credentials within our own communities.

Finally, I believe that the spiritual challenge confronting everyone in our movement is to ever expand our notion of "ecology" until it becomes a framework for understanding that everything is precious, because everything is related. The environment suffers because our society believes some resources are expendable. Minorities suffer because our society believes some lives are expendable.

Same problem. Same solution.

Star Vision

by Marilou Awiakta

As I sat against the pine one night
beneath a star-filled sky,
my Cherokee stepped in my mind
and suddenly in every tree,
in every hill and stone,
in my hand lying prone upon
the grass, I could see
each atom’s tiny star –
minute millions so far-flung
so bright they swept me up with earth and sky
in one vast expanse of light.

The moment passed. The pine
was dark, the hill, the stone,
and my hand was bone and flesh
once more, lying on the grass.

From Abiding Appalachia, 1978, St. Luke’s Press

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