By Sue Smith, Vice Moderator of Presbyterians for Earth Care and Stated Clerk of Monmouth Presbytery. Sue is grateful to her colleagues in the Coalition for Healthy Ports and the NJ Environmental Justice Alliance for teaching her everything she knows about environmental racism.
Over the last two years, the Co-Moderators of the 222nd General Assembly, Denise Anderson and Jan Edmiston, have been educating the church on recognizing racism and helping the church on addressing racism. Yet the church embraces solutions to climate change that do not listen to the voices of people of color and people living in poverty – those suffering from environmental racism.
Monmouth Presbytery sent an overture to the 223rd General Assembly, On Responding to Environmental Racism, which calls on the church to listen to the voices of those most impacted by pollution, those living in environmental justice communities (EJ): communities of color and of poverty. The overture also calls on the church to position the church’s approach to environmental problems to include responses to the voices most directly impacted by environmental racism.
In Monmouth, the vote to send the overture to the Assembly passed by one vote. Conversations about racism in mostly white rooms is difficult, as is understanding that listening is action. It was gratifying to see the overture (with amendments) pass overwhelmingly at GA. There were questions that were troubling, “what is environmental racism?”, “what is environmental justice?” evidencing the need for the educational resources that the overture calls for.
I was disappointed at the news coverage after the Assembly. While racism was lifted up as one of the top 10 issues, this overture was not included in any list of overtures addressing racism. It is our silence in responding to environmental racism that is most damaging to EJ communities. In 2015, 155,000 people in the US died prematurely from pollution. (Compared to 14,248 dying prematurely from gun violence, excluding suicide.) While we look to carbon pricing mechanisms to solve climate change, we do not advocate for regulating factory emissions. It is the fine particulate matter emitted along with carbon dioxide that is most harmful to the EJ communities. Particulate matter irritates the lungs – leading to asthma; and it makes the blood sticky – causing cardiac issues. Those most affected are females, people of color, the elderly and those living in poverty. Carbon pricing is a market solution and the market alone should not determine equity. The market has never been good to EJ communities. Data proves that in NJ communities of color and communities of poverty suffer the most from pollution.
Denise and Jan admitted that as much educating as they had done in the church around racism, there is much work undone. Environmental racism is an area where work still needs to be done, and this overture is a start. For those of us with privilege, it is our responsibility to educate ourselves about environmental racism. And it is our responsibility to listen to and respond to the voices of EJ communities and to walk alongside our brothers and sisters as they work toward their solutions to these problems. And we need to call it out for what it is – systemic racism.