We all know that Black, Hispanic, Native American and other Communities of Color are disproportionately impacted by environmental pollution and degradation. But when you actually hear the numbers it is still shocking. Air pollution from cars, trucks and buses disproportionately hits Communities of Color here in New York with Black New Yorkers exposed to 72% more vehicle pollution; Latinos to 81% more vehicle pollution; and Asian Americans 100% more (i.e. twice as much) vehicle pollution than white residents of the state. This heightened exposure means a higher rate of asthma attacks, heart attacks, lung cancer and more. One third of the public schools in New York City where children are predominantly Black, Hispanic and Asian/Pacific Islander are in the top 10% nationwide for exposure to neurotoxicants such as lead, mercury and cyanide, impacting their health, development and learning. The failure to achieve environmental justice for Communities of Color is part of the systemic failings of our nation’s system of laws.
Systemic failures require systemic reform throughout the government structure to address all areas of racial inequity. Police reform, education reform, economic reform, health care reform and environmental justice are all essential to end the racism and violence that pervades in communities across our nation. Environmental Racism is a systemic problem that requires systemic solutions.
Leaders in the Civil Rights movement early on recognized the irreplaceable value of securing constitutional recognition and protections, from the right to vote to the right to attend the same quality schools as all other children in the community. It is time to give this same highest constitutional protection to Environmental Rights so we have the power of the constitution to secure true and enforceable environmental justice.
People are constantly told they have a right to clean water and air but this is simply not true. If it is not in the bill of rights section of the constitution, it is a right we can hold in our heart, minds and spirits, but it is not a right we can hold government officials accountable to protect. There are only 2 states that currently recognize environmental rights in their state Bill of rights, i.e. a Green Amendment – Pennsylvania and Montana. New York could be next if voters support the proposed constitutional Green Amendment proposed on the November Ballot.
Green Amendments constitutionally mandate that all communities have the same rights to clean water and air, and healthy environments, regardless of race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. With a New York Green Amendment, all government officials, from the local town council to the legislature and the governor’s office, would be duty bound to protect the environmental rights of all people and communities. No longer could there be environmental sacrifice zones where communities of color are unjustly and repeatedly targeted for pollution and environmental degradation that harms every aspect of their lives.
While adding the right of all people to clean water and air, and a healthful environment, will not be an instant panacea for environmental protection, it will ensure environmental justice is a constitutional priority, that government will need to focus on prevention of pollution and harm rather than simply permitting and managing it, and will ensure the strongest legal tool we have, our constitution, can be used to restore environmental protection, equity and justice when government fails us.
A NY Green Amendment provides a way to make environmental justice more than just a buzzword or a hot topic. It provides a means for making environmental justice real, meaningful and enforceable.