Lead-tainted public water in Flint, Mich., may have become a bottle water-grabbing cause celebre in 2016 as Black social movements protested the scandalous manmade disaster that poisoned the entire working class, majority-Black city. Black elected officials, from newly elected Mayor Karen Weaver to Michigan state legislators on up to the Congressional Black Caucus, were all focused on Flint as a prominent example of Black lives in urban centers being neglected by rural, suburban and Republican-leaning state legislatures, governors and policymakers in Washington.

Charles D. Ellison

Charles D. Ellison

But overall — outside of occasional shout-outs to Flint — there are few signs that Black elected officials, policymakers and political operatives are making a concerted effort on issues related to the environment, whether it’s water quality, clean air, urban resilience or climate change.

The lack of Black political community discourse on environmental issues is significant considering the disproportionate and disastrous impact challenges such as climate change and pollution have on most communities of color. Lead poisoning troubles nearly 12 percent of all Black children in the United States, with water pollution determined by concentration of certain racial demographics and level of income.  According to a study sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, African Americans suffer the highest exposure rates to air pollutants compared to their White and Latino counterparts (the latter suffering from the second highest rates), thereby exacerbating respiratory diseases such as asthma and other chronic illnesses.  And when major disasters strike (such as Hurricane Katrina, Super Storm Sandy or the historic, sudden August storm flooding in Baton Rouge, La.) it’s often Black communities clustered in vulnerable and badly protected urban locations that get hit the hardest. As global temperatures rise, hot summers in densely populated cities are increasingly lethal to underserved low-income and Black populations.

The financial and social toll from climate change disasters, such as what happened in New Orleans in 2005, also leads to massive displacement of Black families unable to recover due to lack of resources and unequal distribution of disaster relief.  Nearly 12 years after Katrina and 80 percent of Black Lower Ninth Ward residents could not afford to go back.

Yet, topics such as climate change or environmental impact get little play when Black elected officials huddle. This year’s Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Annual Legislative Conference, obviously pre-occupied with the election, had only one, barely promoted forum dedicated to a discussion on environmental issues, with a focus primarily on Flint. At the recent annual gathering of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators (NBCSL) in New Orleans (a city still showing signs of recovery from Katrina), there was actually no mention of the environment on the agenda nor any public discussions taking place–something that didn’t go unnoticed by some Black state legislators there who were hoping for the conversation.

“Honestly, not enough,” argued Louisiana State Rep. Ted James when asked by the AFRO if the broader Black political community is talking about the environment. James represents the Baton Rouge district devastated by historic summer flooding. “I was encouraged to at least, see the conversations taking place . But, I’m hoping that the small conversations will lead to larger presentations.  It’s not one of the traditional issues we’ve dealt with. This must be an area in which we can do better.

“Unfortunately, we lose about a football field of the Louisiana coast every day,” said James. “For me, growing up with asthma, I didn’t at first recognize climate change or the environment as an issue. I thought I was just a sick kid. But, one of the largest employers in Baton Rouge, an Exxon chemical plant, stretches about two miles in the middle of the Black community where I grew up. So, you can’t ignore those high rates of cancer and asthma in Black communities.”

Even lawmakers like Wisconsin State Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) were eager to have related discussions about urban farming, community resilience and low access to quality, fresh food.  When Taylor was abruptly removed as co-chair of the Wisconsin legislature’s powerful Joint Finance Committee and transitioned over to the Agriculture, Small Business, and Tourism Committee, she instead used the initially odd appointment to highlight issues such as the longtime crisis of food deserts in urban and underserved Black communities.

“I noticed these were important issues and conversations communities like my district in Milwaukee needed to have,” Taylor said. “We need to be at that table, talking about resilience, about how communities use the land.”

Tamika Butler, a prominent Black environmentalist and executive director of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, hopes the environmental justice movement presses a new strategy that dramatically differs from the broader environmental movement by centering the dialogue on racial inequity, discrimination and human rights. That could prompt more action from policymakers representing underserved constituents.

“From indigenous people in the Dakotas protecting their water to African Americans in Detroit still fighting for clean water to Latino Americans in Southeastern Los Angeles fighting toxic sites, people of color and low-income people are often segregated into neighborhoods with few resources and open space, but high levels of pollution and toxic waste,” argued Butler. “Here in California, brown communities are still fighting to just breathe by the Exide facilities, while the more affluent community of Porter Ranch gained national attention and was quickly handled with community members compensation and apologies.

“This is racism,” added Butler. “And this racism aids in the destruction of our planet.”  

Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist, Washington Correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, Contributing Editor at TheRoot.com and a Contributor for The Hill.  Recipient of the NAACP’s Leadership 500 award, Ellison is also a weekly analyst on Keeping it Real w/ Al Sharpton, a panelist on MSNBC’s Hardball and is heard every Sunday morning on WDAS-FM (Philly) while regularly offering cutting-edge analysis on WURD-AM (Philly) and WVON-AM (Chicago).