From the River’s Edge: Wellness

Dr. Robert L. “Bob” Bartlett The Black Lens

In last month’s column I called out environmental racism in Spokane. The purpose was not to cast blame or judgment on the more fortunate but rather an attempt to make an invisible, visible.

The environmental justice movement came into being as a response to acts of environmental racism. Black sociologist, Dr. Robert D. Bullard is recognized as the “Father” of the environmental justice movement. He first made headlines in 1990, when his book titled, Dumping in Dixie: Race, class, and environmental quality, hit the shelves. Dr. Bullard found that most toxic urban pollution exists in low-income communities, “… among people who generate the least amounts of it but suffer the greatest risk from environmental hazards because they receive fewer protections.” He also found that the asthmatic death rate for black children who reside in these neighborhoods to be eight times higher than that of white children.

Ms. Hazel M. Johnson is recognized as the black “Mother” of the movement. Mrs. Johnson was born in New Orleans, LA in1935. She lived in an area now called “Cancer Alley”—where she was the only child of 4 in her family to survive past her first birthday and where both parents passed away by the time she turned 12.

Years later she moved to a housing project on the South Side of Chicago called Altgeld Gardens Homes. Her young husband would die there of lung cancer and unexplained illness would hit her children. That led Ms. Johnson to investigate the environmental conditions surrounding her neighborhood. She found that many of her neighbors had lung and other cancers, children suffered from skin and respiratory illnesses and many were born with birth defects. She also found that Altgeld Gardens was surrounded by toxic waste dumping sites and that it was built squarely on top of a former industrial waste dump. She labeled the area, the “toxic donut.”

In 1979, Ms. Johnson founded the People for Community Recovery (PCR) to advocate for the issues facing her community. During her time there she would work with a young activist who would later become president of the United States, Barack Obama. Known as the “Mother” of the movement, Ms. Johnson died in 2011 from congestive heart failure.

Together Dr. Bullard and Mrs. Johnson stand as the most powerful black couple in its history. Neither lived anywhere close to Spokane, WA, but anyone here, or elsewhere who dares to enter the movement stands squarely on their shoulders. What these “parents” of environmental justice made visible was that toxic waste dumping produces undiscriminating killing fields among the less fortunate.

Living near major highways is also toxic. They contribute to poor air quality and toxic levels of noise pollution. Neighborhoods with pass-through freeways are exposed to the constant environmental consequences associated with an endless stream of traffic—in neighborhoods where sightings of nature and wildlife are only depicted on the sides of eighteen-wheelers on a rush to somewhere.

Ask yourself: Are there any neighborhoods in our city limits or beyond that are invisible killing fields?

My wife and I still live in the house we bought here, near I-90. The freeway passes approximately two blocks from our front door. Being concerned about its close proximity, we asked the sellers about the noise. Their response was epic, “We’ve lived here so long we don’t even hear it. Think of it as the sound of a rushing river passing by.” Well, I know rivers! After 35 years, and fortunately living just out of sight of it, I-90 still sounds and smells like a freeway!

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Expo ‘74 whose theme was “Celebrating Tomorrow’s Fresh New Environment.” Well done Spokane, if the singular goal was to beautify our downtown. However, just a short distance from River Park Square residents are still impacted by environmental injustice.

Like the Civil Rights Movement, the battle for justice will not be fought by the most fortunate—rather, by the victims of injustice. Thank you, Dr. Bullard and Mrs. Johnson, for making these likely, invisible crimes, visible. We stand on your shoulders!

Dr. Bartlett is a retired educator. He retired from Gonzaga University in 2007 and Eastern Washington University in 2020