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Environmental Justice is Racial Justice

Vermont Law School Professor Pat Parenteau
Professor Pat Parenteau

June 22, 2020

The horrific killing of George Floyd by four Minneapolis police officers, caught on a bystander's cell phone, has shocked the world and galvanized the largest movement in support of Black Lives Matter and an end to systemic institutional racism since the civil rights marches of the 60's. I was involved in some of those 60's protests but this time it's different. Now there is a much greater percentage of white and young people participating in the protests, as well as a number of police chiefs and cops in many cities taking a knee in solidarity with the protesters. In sharp contrast President Trump sends the National Guard and the National Park Service police to disperse without warning peaceful protesters in front of the White House using billy clubs, rubber bullets and tear gas to clear a path for him to stage a photo op holding a bible and using St John's Episcopal Church as a prop for his law and order re-election campaign.

This is a moment of truth for the nation, and environmental law and VLS graduates have a key role to play in confronting and eradicating the racism that permeates every facet of American society. We know that African Americans suffer disproportionately from environmental degradation. Sixty-eight per cent of black people live within thirty miles of a coal-fired power plant and suffer higher rates of asthma and other respiratory ailments. We know that black communities have higher rates of mortality and morbidity from the coronavirus pandemic due to their weakened immune systems and poor access to health care. We know what happened in Flint Michigan and in other minority communities with lead contamination problems that have been ignored for decades. We know that hazardous waste facilities are more often sited in black communities than white. The list goes on.

We also know that climate change is impacting communities of color disproportionately and threatens even graver danger in the future if we do not transition, swiftly but justly, away from a destructive fossil fuel economy. The destruction of Hurricane Maria, Harvey, Katrina, and Superstorm Sandy, amplified by climate change, all had a direct impact not only on marginalized and vulnerable communities but on communities of color, which reinforces that racial justice and climate justice are linked.

Last Saturday, June 6, over 600 people came to the green in South Royalton to rally in support for Black Lives Matter and to pledge sustained action to bring about true justice and equality. Inspired by the personal history of our own Dean Shirley Jefferson who grew up in Selma Alabama in the Jim Crow years and marched with Dr Martin Luther King the crowd roared its assent to the chant that defines the moment: No justice, no peace.

Let us each and every one do all we can, every day, to seek both justice and peace, as well as a safe, healthy, and sustainable planet for all.

Don't forget to vote on November 3, and volunteer to drive as many people to the polls as you can.