When activist groups such as the Sierra Club and the World Wildlife Fund make news trying to save the planet from environmental disaster, African Americans are rarely visible. Don’t blacks care? For most green issues, the answer is yes.
“It is striking to me that when surveys focus specifically on pollution concerns, such as air and water pollution, exposure to toxic substances, and the like, African Americans consistently express greater concern about such issues than white Americans,” says University of Michigan professor Paul Mohai, author of the 2003 study, Dispelling Old Myths: African American Concern for the Environment. His research shows that African American attention to pollution is directly related to the environmental quality of their neighborhoods. “There have been many studies done over the past two decades that convincingly document the disproportionate burden of environmental hazards in African American and other communities [of people of color],” says Mohai. “They are particularly concerned about possible health effects. But other quality of life impacts are also of concern, such as visual blight, noxious odors, noise, traffic congestion, the safety of residents’ children, and social stigmatization.”
Furthermore, surveys Mohai and colleagues conducted in Detroit debunked assumptions that blacks’ environmental interests were limited to direct local nuisances. Their 2002 survey found that African Americans expressed greater concern than whites not only regarding pollution and neighborhood environmental problems, but also about nature preservation and global environmental issues. [ See Chart ]
What’s more, African Americans also take action on green issues. For instance, Mohai’s study found that of the respondents who often or always made pro-environmental lifestyle choices, blacks outdid whites for buying pesticide-free food, driving less, and eating less meat. Blacks came up short, however, on recycling: While 64% of whites recycled, only 44% of blacks did.
What appears to be low black participation in the green movement is an illusion: In 2000, a national survey found 9% of whites versus 8% of African Americans belonged to an environmental group. Instead of joining well-known and highly publicized national organizations, black environmental activists often form their own local groups. African American green activism dates back to the 1980s, when the environmental justice movement sprang up as grassroots mobilizations opposing the dumping of toxic waste near black communities.
Research shows that awareness of green issues is not a strange concept to black people. As part of our ongoing BEing Green coverage, we’ll explore some of the eco-friendly activities that are being pursued by African Americans—and look at some of the interesting ways you can become more environmentally conscious.
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