How the Bronx Turned Green

A conversation with environmental activist Majora Carter about integrating the movement, how to stop dumping on our communities, and why planting trees won't kill hip-hop.

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Environmental activist Majora Carter.

It's not surprising that many African Americans give Earth Day a pass. When you live poorer and die younger in the land of plenty, it can be hard to get excited about protecting the planet at large.

The oppression of black people covers centuries of troubled terrain from forced agricultural labor, to contemporary land loss, to racialized proximity, to polluting industries. For African Americans, nature's bounty has always stood in stark contrast to human suffering.

It's not that black Americans don't care about the environment. In fact, public opinion data show that there is no clear "green gap" between black and white Americans. But blacks are more likely to care about green issues that most directly affect their lives. While whites express more concern about climate change, wilderness preservation and endangered species, African Americans express more concern about pollution, locally undesirable land uses and human health outcomes. Asthmatic children are far more likely to turn African Americans into environmental activists than disappearing polar bears.

The modern environmental justice movement emerged in the South where citizens in places like Warren Country, N.C. fought to block polluters from entering poor communities, and in urban locales like Gary, Ind. that recognized the links between industrial pollution and health issues of the poor black community. With the emergence of this new movement linking environmental injustice to racial injustice, black Americans became important actors to green activism and ordinary black men and women in Southern rural and Northern urban areas became the backbone of the environmental movement.

Few have been more critical to this movement than Majora Carter, founder of Sustainable South Bronx. I certainly agree with my fellow contributor to The Root, Veronica Chambers, that Majora Carter has earned her place as a genius of our time.

Born and raised in the South Bronx Carter's life and work is committed to challenging the assumption that her community is worth less than other New York neighborhoods.

Carter's contributions are both large and small. SSB has worked to plant hundred of trees in the community and to build planter boxes with benches around those trees. This is a simple task that allows residents to come out of their homes, gather in the shade of the trees, and actually sit down. The transformation makes the streets safer by encouraging more local residents to simply sit outside in the shade and observe public activities. Carter's larger projects include designing the South Bronx Greenway, with 11 miles of bike and pedestrian paths, and securing tens of millions in grants to remove underused expressways and spur "green collar" jobs.

This fall I had the opportunity to have a public conversation with Majora Carter at an event on Princeton University's campus co-sponsored by the Center for African American Studies and the Princeton Environmental Institute.

MHL: I love that your work challenges the core of how we should be thinking about black politics. When are black politics green? When do race leaders become environmentalists?

MC: In many of our communities our leaders think that the environment has nothing to do with them, or is not really about their communities. Some of my hardest work is helping folks to understand the links between the environment and poverty; between the environment and public health; between the environment and general quality of life. Assuming that the environment is only under the purview of whites is not helpful. This is part of why we are always trying to make the economic argument. How can we get our leadership engaged in a way so that they understand that this is something they should be fighting with us? We haven't quite done that yet.

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