By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
Global warming and results including coastal flooding, saving endangered species from extinction, lack of clean drinkablewater and air are concerns environmental scholars and activists are focusing their attention and resources on to resolve.
But there are issues which directly and disproportionately impact on poor and African-American urban and rural communities.
Historic and deliberate, many mostly Black communities have been defined by environmental activists as “Sacrifice Zones.”
In many historically Black neighborhoods and locales, industrial activities produce, inject directly or dump dangerous and toxic waste in the air, ground, and water.
Crime, noise and other life-threatening factors defined as “environmental racism” affect the inhabitants’ physical and emotional well-being.
“These are communities which are perceived to have no voice, advocates or make no contributions economically or politically enough to sit at the tables of power and fight these environmental injustices,” said Dr. Bernadette Holmes, an NSU Sociology and Criminal Justice Professor. “Many people involved in environmental justice think Black people have no affinity for the issue. But the Black community looks at the issue from a much broader cultural and racial lens. It is more than just a white middle-class concern. Our communities are disproportionately impacted by air, water and land pollutions.”
Starting next year, NSU’s Sociology Department will offer a course in Environmental Crime and Justice for undergraduate and graduate students.
The course will allow the students to study the various environmental issues facing Black communities and in general, including global warming, coastal flooding, and the critical issues facing the Black community.
Hampton Roads is one of a number of coastal regions which is being impacted by global warming. As the temperatures and the seas rise, both will impact all of the locales and the world’s largest U.S. Naval Base.
“There are not many Black people in the field of environmental activism and scholarship,” said Dr. Holmes. “So we want to create a pipeline of students – professionals – to become advocates and the voices on environmental issues facing the Black communities which do not have one.”
For the past two years, NSU has offered a Special Topics Course for students interested in environmental issues, funded by a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) grant.
It was designed to train students to look at how communities would respond to devastating environmental and natural disasters.
Just recently the program hosted a forum for individuals interested in “Environmental Justice” and about 60 people attended indicating to Dr. Holmes and her colleagues that Black people indeed are interested in the subject.
Next year the Sociology Department will sponsor a series of major events to observe the 50th anniversary of Earth Day and engage the students and the community on issues of environmental justice.
Holmes said that during the current academic year the “Special Topics Course” on Environmental Crime and Justice looked at Environmental Crimes. She said that typically breaking state and federal environmental protection laws are white collar and subject to regulatory fines and sanction
“We are looking at the impact of selling defective products, polluting, poisoning of drinking water and dumping hazardous material,” said Holmes. “These actions have a devastating impact on our communities of color. We believe criminal penalties should be imposed.”
If Dr. Holmes and her students want to find solid evidence of environmental racism and injustice faced by people in “Sacrifice Zones” of communities of color, they do not have to trek far from the NSU campus.
The NSU Department of Sociology and the Criminal Justice and Urban Affairs programs are all housed in the school’s new and massive Brown Hall Academic Complex on Corprew Avenue in the Central Brambleton section.
On three sides, NSU borders the private middle-income Black housing developments Middle Town Arch, Stonebridge, and Broad Creek.
East of the campus on Ballentine Boulevard next to those communities is a company which receives and distributes tons of rocks for construction. Each day dust hovers above mountains of rock being loaded onto trucks and rail cars.
Across the street from the complex is Norfolk’s waste disposal site, where garbage trucks roll through its doors hourly to dump their contents in the modern structured facility where smells and garbage are not seen.
The I-64 Expressway rings the campus and communities and pollutants from hundreds of cars spew into the air all day long.
Hampton Roads Transit’s (HRT) Light Rail storage and maintenance buildings are located next to the NSU campus’s administration building and sports facilities.
West of the campus off Princess Anne Road and Virginia Beach Boulevard respectively, piles of processed scrap metal of varying value, targeted to be recycled, are loaded in ship containers or trucks to be transported to sites overseas or domestically.
One sits adjacent to the renewed central Brambleton neighborhood bordering Park Avenue, the gateway to the NSU campus
The other sits a block from historic Booker T. Washington High School and a working-class Black enclave facing Princess Ann Road
Last year, residents pushed back and stopped the opening of recycling and refuse collection facility proposed to be located in the old Globe Iron facility where there are other industrial sites and warehouses. It would have been situated in the heart of the Bruce Park/Barraud Park neighborhoods of Norfolk which are less than a mile from NSU campus.
The facility was financed by two well connected Portsmouth politicians.
Each day hundreds of uncovered rail cars, filled with coal from the west section of state roll through Norfolk, on tracks blocks from the NSU campus and each of these Black neighborhoods.
They are bound for the Lambert’s Point Port. They are then flipped over and the contents are conveyed to waiting cargo ships bounds for overseas ports.
The communities near these sites have some of the highest rates of asthma and cancer; maladies associated with varies form of pollutants, including coal dust and toxins from recycled parts from cars and home appliances.
“These situations are an example of “sacrificed communities” due to redlining to assure that Black people would live in those communities,” said Dr. Holmes. “These industrial activities and sites would not encroach or be placed in white and middle-income neighborhoods. There would be immediate resistance from residents and people even sitting on those commissions and boards which approve them. They know the environmental and economic impact they would pose.”
Holmes was raised in the Bolling Brook Section of Norfolk off Granby Street across from Granby High School. Like Titustown, mostly Black people lived in the communities surrounded by all-white enclave. African-Americans could not buy a home in the all-white section until the laws were changed in the early 1970s.
Black women who lived in these communities supplied the domestic workforce for middle-income white families. Their husbands and sons supplied the muscle to work at Norfolk Naval Supply Center.
“These isolated Black communities were built to benefit white middle-class people,” said Holmes. “So were the industrial sites deliberately located in other Black areas.”
“Environmental Justice is a civil rights issue,” said Dr. Holmes. “Green is the new Black. And we hope to create a pipeline … a new generation … a cadre of professional Black environmental scholars and activists to address these issues and give a voice to these communities of people who do not have one on these issues. NSU is poised to make a significant contribution.”