Up From NYC: A Broad’s Side View of the Progressive Grassroots Scene

06/21/2005 11:37 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Score One Big One for the Language of Environmental Justice

There’s one thing I’ve never understood about progressives – their impatience. The right has been willing to wait years – actually decades – for events to turn their way, for their message to be heard.

The right has also been far more successful in capturing language in this country. I can’t accurately recall the exact moment when the term, “pro-life,” for example, passed into regular usage, but it did. Every media outlet, from the mainstream to the alternative, began using that term. The real danger, of course, is the automatically implied opposite – if you’re not “pro-life,” then, what are you, “pro-death,” “anti-life”? It’s become common usage. Progressives rarely seem able to agree on the language, let alone stick to it and repeat it over and over again until everybody “gets it.”

Well, fortunately for us all, the environmental justice movement in NYC has actually chalked one up for the progressive side of the language. And it’s about time, too.

After struggling for years and years, it appears that the terms “environmental justice” and “environmental racism” have actually made it into the generally accepted lexicon of English in this country, at least among the media.

I say this because -- as those of you who’ve read my blog before will know -- we’ve been engaged in a pitched battle for years in NYC over garbage – who produces it, how and when it gets picked up and disposed of and where it all goes. Unsurprisingly, most of the garbage in NYC is picked up by dirty diesel garbage trucks and brought to low income and communities of color in the outer boroughs for processing, communities that are generally jam packed with environmental burdens that wealthier communities simply don’t have and don’t care to think about.

More than a dozen environmental justice groups, assembled into an umbrella group known as the Organization of Waterfront Neighborhoods (OWN), knew that the City of New York would need to come up with a new garbage plan and began planning for it more than seven years ago. Right from the beginning, OWN realized a very important thing – that the “message” conveyed to the media and the public needed to be clear and consistent. So, in just about every press release, at every event, on any occasion at all, the members of OWN wrote and talked about environmental justice and environmental racism – for seven years. And, like water on a stone, those words eventually left their mark.

How can I be so sure about this victory of words? As I watched the NY City Council debating the merits of the current garbage plan, which all of the environmental justice groups in the City support, I was struck by one important thing: almost to a person, Councilmembers – and this includes those who don’t support the new plan – rose to speak and, one way or another, simply had to use the words environmental justice and/or environmental racism, and were compelled to address the central issue that those powerful terms imply – the inequitable distribution of environmental burdens across the urban landscape, where people of color and poorer folks bear the brunt of pollution from power plants, diesel trucks, manufacturing facilities and other noxious facilities. And they were all forced to explain why their position either wasn’t a show of environmental racism or supported the principles of environmental justice.

If you don’t believe me, you can access any of NYC’s English language – and, for that matter, Spanish language --daily newspapers and search for the terms. One particularly fair-minded reporter I know even admitted to me that he’d been reluctant, at first, to use these terms, but gradually came to understand and accept them.

Of course, beyond NYC, environmental justice groups have been pushing the same agenda, and you can even search the web for these phrases. If you do, you’ll see another pattern – that the usage of environmental justice and environmental racism has clearly picked up nationally and internationally in a dramatic way over the last few years.

No matter how the garbage issue works itself out in New York City, one thing’s been achieved that can’t be taken away: never again will a company, or the government at any level, be able to quietly site pollution-belching plants, or send dirty diesel trucks through these communities. They will be held accountable to the new, higher standards of environmental justice, and that, in the end, is good for all of us.