In the midst of yet another societal reckoning and with news of racial injustice across the country happening every day — including the deaths of Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, George Floyd, Eric Garner and too many more — I am seeing yet another injustice fall through the cracks in the state of Virginia.
In 1981, appalled by what I saw playing out across the country, I researched, experienced and defined the term that I coined: “environmental racism.” I helped to start the fight for environmental justice 39 years ago. That struggle continues to this day — with Black Americans being 75 percent more likely to live in areas situated near hazardous-waste facilities. The most recent instance of environmental racism, brought to my attention through my work with the Healthcare Equality Network, is in Cumberland County, Va. The Green Ridge mega-landfill, which is in the works to gain approval from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), must be stopped. Our communities and lives depend on it.
As someone who has documented environmental racism for much of my career, I was not surprised to learn that this landfill is set to be placed on the beautifully untouched land of a predominantly Black county. But what was even more painful to learn is that it is set to be built right next to Pine Grove Elementary School — a more-than-100-year-old Rosenwald School and a historical landmark from the Jim Crow era.
Rosenwald Schools were created in 1917 by Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington to “improve educational opportunities for African American children in the American South.” It is, of course, important to note that these schools were built not just out of want but also necessity. Because of Jim Crow laws and our country’s ongoing battle with racism, our people were not given the same educational opportunities as Whites.
Now, many people of younger generations may think Jim Crow and segregation feel like ancient history, but as one who has been around to bear witness to many of the United States’ societal transgressions, I can assure you that the wound is as fresh as ever. These schools represent an important part of Black American history that we cannot permit to be tarnished, and we certainly cannot forget. Places such as Pine Grove Elementary offered a home — a safe haven in a dangerous world — to the siblings and parents of my generation, and without their efforts, we would not have been able to come anywhere near as far as we have today.
Placing a mega-landfill on the healthy and untarnished land surrounding the school would not only pollute the air, traffic and overall environment of this already underserved community, but it would also restrict access to the school and keep people from the opportunity to learn from its history.
When will our battle for equal rights end? When our voices are heard and our health is taken into consideration by governing bodies and key decision-makers.
I know for a fact the Green Ridge mega-landfill is not the only case of the Black community experiencing environmental racism, but it is one that we have the power to stop. The Virginia DEQ and Gov. Ralph Northam (D) have a decision to make. Will they listen to the cries of the Black community — who just want their lives to matter as much as those of White people? Or will we once again bear the brunt of the “unintended consequences” of their final decision?