Here are five reasons why on this 2012 MLK Day we should demand eco-justice for the black landowners in Tennessee.
The treatment of the Holt family is a clear civil rights violation of equal protection under the law. The discriminatory and differential treatment of the Holts at the hands of the state of Tennessee is a violation of their civil rights guaranteed under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Clearly, the U.S. is not yet in a post-racial era. Race still matters.
The right to clean water is a basic human right. The poisoning of the Holt family’s well water and the failure of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) to protect them from environmental harm are clear human rights violations. On July 28, 2010, the United Nations, through Resolution 64/292, recognized the human right to water and sanitation and acknowledged that clean water and sanitation are essential to the realization of all human rights.
The Holts’ toxic nightmare on Eno Road is the “poster child” for environmental racism. The United Church of Christ 2007 Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty report describes the poisoning of the Holts’ well and the government response as the “poster child” for environmental racism. The Dickson case conforms to the national trend in which African Americans and other people of color make up the majority (56%) of the residents living in neighborhoods within two miles of the nation's commercial hazardous waste facilities, nearly double the percentage in areas beyond two miles (30%). They also make up more than two-thirds (69%) of the residents in neighborhoods with two or more clustered facilities. Nationally, African Americans are 79 percent more likely than whites to live in neighborhoods where industrial pollution is suspected of posing the greatest health danger.
Toxic racism steals black health. Harry Holt died of cancer in January 2007. His daughter, Sheila Holt Orsted is recovering from breast cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, even though Caucasian women are slightly more likely to develop breast cancer breast cancer than African-Americans, African-American women are more likely to die of the disease. The industrial solvent TCE is widely known to be harmful to humans. A 2011 EPA study found that TCE is even more dangerous to people’s health than previously thought—causing kidney and liver cancer, lymphoma and other health problems. This new EPA study lays the groundwork to reevaluate the federal drinking-water standard for TCE: 5 parts per billion in water, and 1 microgram per cubic meter in air.
Toxic racism robs black wealth. Poisoning of black land with toxic chemicals robs blacks of their wealth and widens the wealth gap between blacks and whites. Today, the typical white family has 20 times the wealth of the typical black family. That's the largest gap in 25 years. This theft has robbed African Americans landowners of wealth that would normally be passed down to their offspring. This phenomenon is not unique to Tennessee. The world learned of this stolen legacy in the discriminatory treatment of black farmers at the hands of the USDA and their long wait for justice. And in December 2010, President Barack Obama signed a bill authorizing $1.25 billion dollars in appropriations for the Pigford II lawsuit after Congress approved the legislation in November 2010. According to the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, from emancipation to 1910, blacks amassed 15 million acres of land of which 218,000 black farmers are full or part owners. A steady decline of black land ownership began after 1910 through theft, intimidation, discrimination, back taxes, and economic loss.
Finally, in the spirit of Dr. King, it is fitting that we lift up the Dickson, Tennessee case, a struggle that epitomizes the civil rights leader’s final human rights campaign.